Baseball

Jose Abreu’s New Deal Is Only Curious If You Want To Overanalyze it

Jose Abreu and the White Sox did what we all thought they were going to do and agreed to a multi-year contract in lieu of the qualifying offer the Cuban first baseman accepted just over a week ago. With his countryman Yasmani Grandal now in the fold too, Abreu’s signing makes things more complicated than the QO reality of a few days ago.

The three-year, $50M pact was met with a mostly collective “sure. cool. whatever.” Not everyone was willing to congratulate Abreu and look ahead in what’s become a pretty active early off-season for the Sox, though. A vocal sect of media and fans are a bit sour on going to a three-year commitment with the streaky 32 year-old slugger when the team had him for one year, seemingly the preferred position from an analytical standpoint.

But this deal isn’t really about analytics, and if you can’t see the intangibles at play you’re really not even trying. Abreu and Jerry Reinsdorf apparently have a pretty great relationship, because his new paper represents the same kind of loyalty that Jerry shows his front office. Abreu has done a lot to keep the Sox relevant through the failed runs earlier in the decade and the subsequent tear down and rebuild they find themselves in at the end of it. Declining wRC+ be damned, Jerry decided he was going to welcome Jose into the family.

So is this going to be the regret that the un-silent minority thinks it is? Are the leadership and RBI binges, Cuban mentor/ambassador qualities all enough to justify the term/dollars? Is it really even that much in dollars? What does it mean for the future at first base and DH, specifically Andrew Vaughn?

First, the doom-and-gloom outlook. Yes, Abreu hasn’t been the same hitter the last two years that he was in his first four stateside. He dealt with many a nagging injury in 2018, but his 116 wRC+ across 2018-19 is more than 20 points worse than his 2014-17 average of 139. Sure, a continued decline is a possibility for a slugger on the fringes of his prime. But the underlying numbers say his 2019 wasn’t as bad as the surface suggests (highest hard-hit rate in his career, 2nd highest barrel rate) and FanGraphs Steamer projections have him at 32/89/.332 for 2020. Another addition to the lineup via RF could help improve/protect Abreu further as he ages.

The 3/$50M price looks a bit rough, again, on the surface, but I don’t need to delve further into how Abreu is the heart of this team, looked up to by many of the young players set to take the Sox to the next level. Eloy said he’s like a father. Yeah, an $18M cheerleader doesn’t look great in 2022, but the dollars here are all more complicated than they appear as well. Abreu will collect on that $50M, but he won’t see the last payment of it until 2026 with $4M in deferred money. Add to that a $5M signing bonus, and the deal is actually $11M/’20, $16M/’21, $14M/’18 for 3/$41. This could’ve definitely been worse in terms of loyalty deals, and as stated Abreu might justify this with his bat regardless.

So where does that bat fit across these next three seasons? This is where it gets interesting. The Sox don’t lack for players that will push Abreu through this deal, especially with Grandal onboard through ’23. Abreu, Grandal, James McCann, Zack Collins and Yermin Mercedes look like they’re set to create a timeshare between 1B/DH/C in 2020. 2019 third overall pick Andrew Vaughn looks set to push for work with the big club by the end of 2020 but you can argue they’ve got plenty of cover to keep him in minors regardless, barring injury to at least two of those five; and even that would have to coincide with Vaughn forcing the issue in a major way with his bat. Like with Eloy, Robert, and Nick Madrigal the Sox have shown they’re willing to let the kids marinate. Maybe it’s different if they’re pushing for the playoffs, but that’s a bridge to be crossed when it approaches.

So what of the two years beyond next season? Well, while everyone wants Vaughn, or even Gavin Sheets for that matter, to force the issue we all know nothing is certain. So Vaughn can’t just be expected to be mashing in the MLB by the end of 2020. Given the track record, there are many worse options than having Abreu, with the aforementioned contingent, making up the playing time at first base. This gets real muddy if Eloy can’t stay in the field, but with reports that he’s headed to winterball this week to specifically work on his defense (“his goal is to win a Gold Glove in the MLB” says Hector Gomez) he appears seriously committed to improving that aspect of his game and staying in Left.

Basically, you can’t sort out how to deal with Abreu and his time at 1B/DH and who else is pushing for those ABs until they get there. And the Sox absolutely need him in 2020 at the very least, and at first for the most part. Easing him into more DH time helps the team solve its problems there as well, possibly to the point of moving him there full time by the end of this deal. 30 HR and a 116 wRC+ from the DH position in ’21-22 would be the best DH season Sox fans have seen in…half a decade? longer?

Rick Hahn has also been a pretty complimentary of Zack Collins and Yermin Mercedes since the end of the season, going as far as to protect former AAA Rule 5 draftee Mercedes with a 40-man spot after a strong offensive season in Charlotte’s bandbox of a stadium. Collins very well could find himself in another organization if the right(fielder) fit is available via trade. I’d think they look to dangle guys like Collins, Sheets, Blake Rutherford, players they know have tough paths to real roles with this team that could help improve them elsewhere. If you’re banking of using Abreu as a bridge to Vaughn, six years of control on Collins might be better used by another team, but 2020 will also see the addition of a 26th roster spot – conceivably making room for everyone for a year, at least (whether that space is best used for a 1B/DH/C collective is probably a whole other post).

If you want to get crazy maybe Vaughn himself becomes expendable for a Mookie Betts deal, but I’d sooner expect the Bears to win the Super Bowl this season. Vaughn is a part of the plan moving forward, Abreu deal or not. Collins is the guy who just had his path to more at bats immediately affected by the signings last week. Maybe Abreu invited him to the celebration in Miami before he changes teams. It’s the least he could do for making him expendable.

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