White Sox personnel were officially able to acknowledge the presence of Jose Abreu with a formal introduction at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday. We know the details of his six-year, $68 million contract, we know why the Sox wanted him, and we know what Abreu sounds like.
Rick Hahn opened by saying, "It's a good day today." Time will tell, but it's certainly nice to write about Abreu without pending-ness hanging over the proceedings.
The Cuban connection is neat, but ...
The White Sox played up the franchise's Cuban lineage at the media conference. Festive music preceded the festivities, and Dayan Viciedo and Minnie Minoso were both on hand to see the newest fellow countryman brought into the fold.
There's a lot of history there, but it would have been a little more powerful had the Sox not been the highest bidder, because you can't draw any inferences from Abreu's choice. Had the Sox bid $60 million while the Rockies went for $63 million and the Rangers a reported $65 million, you could say the Sox had some je ne sais quoi (or its Spanish equivalent) for drawing power.
Maybe they did. Abreu thanked Viciedo and Minoso and Alexei Ramirez for providing valuable input, but with the Sox extending themselves the most financially, it can easily be read as a strict business decision. Had the Rangers ponied up $70 million, would he be appearing with Jon Daniels and Leonys Martin on Tuesday? Or in Denver with Dan O'Dowd and ... I dunno, Dinger the Dinosaur? Maybe, and I wouldn't hold it against him.
That said, the history of Cubans taking to Chicago probably gave the Sox more comfort and incentive in pursuing Abreu with a purpose.
The Sox closed the deal
Back in November 2007, the Sox rolled out the red carpet for Torii Hunter during the center fielder's "I Love Nouns" World Tour ("The grass runs true!"), and they thought they had a five-year, $75 million deal locked up around Thanksgiving. Hunter spoiled a lot of Sox executives' holidays when he informed them that the Angels came in at the last minute and gave him a mind-boggling sum the Sox couldn't match.
That's an interesting "What If?" The Sox seemed to recover well enough from Hunter's spurning by getting Nick Swisher, but he was an odd fit on the field, and a stranger one in the clubhouse. Hunter more than earned his contract with five good years, and he would've solved the Sox' center field issues for at least a few of those years if his performance with the Angels could be translated to Chicago.
(Then again, Hunter might not have been the best fit himself. He has a history of fights and near-fights with teammates in both Minnesota and Anaheim, which suggests he might've had the same problems Orlando Cabrera encountered. In Hunter's case, though, the media has always been extremely forgiving, because he knows how to play them.)
Abreu's game doesn't resemble Hunter's, but the Sox did see him as an early offseason target that would fill a big gap and make it easier to map out a turnaround, even if it took a franchise-record investment. In Abreu's case, there are even fewer strings attached because it's a lower sum and it didn't cost a draft pick. So they come away with a new first baseman while preserving resources (money, draft picks, trade candidates) for other noteworthy moves.
Could they have used the Cuban familiarity to cut a corner? Maybe. But if the Sox truly believe in Abreu's talent, saving $5 million or whatever over six years wasn't worth an experiment. They seemed to leave nothing to chance. They were present in the rumor mill from start to finish, and it wrapped up in a very linear fashion. You'll rarely see the life cycle of a free agent require so few twists and turns, especially with the competition the Sox faced.
And make no mistake...
The Sox believe in his talent
During the media conference, Rick Hahn laid out a case for Abreu -- the numbers were intriguing (he cited the Davenport translations), the scouting assessments backed it up (called his approach "clean" and "low-maintenance"), and while every free agent signing is a game of chance, Hahn called it a "calculated risk" that the front office was comfortable taking, given his well-rounded hitting skills.
On more than one occasion, though, Hahn stressed that Abreu was but a piece of the offseason -- "It's not on him alone" -- and there would be a transitional period, not just with the new league, but a new country, too.
But when it broke into one-on-one interview sessions, Kenny Williams opened the floodgates:
"I've seen a lot of great ones over my 32 years of professional baseball, and this is the first time that I've wanted to stand up and give a standing ovation after a batting practice," Williams gushed during a one-on-one interview at the Cell. "Even the preparation leading up to batting practice, where I watched him hitting off the tee in the cage, that preparation, that focus, that attention to detail ... before he's going to take batting practice, which is generally just an exhibition in bat speed and power and guys trying to crank it, he took a batting practice like he was going to play in a major-league game that night."
Like Abreu, in a sense, Williams was just getting warmed up.
"During the batting practice, it was a low maintenance, soft, quiet load of his hands," Williams said. "And his lower half and his hands worked as well as I've seen a right-handed hitter's hands work down through the ball, and the ball explodes off his bat, but in a line-drive manner. When he hits the tape-measure shots, it's almost as thought he missed hitting a line drive and now he's got backspin on the ball. At one point I asked Marco, 'How far is that left-field fence out there, 250 (feet)?' Because the ball was going so far beyond the fence, I was like, 'It can't be 330, 340.' (Paddy) said, 'No, it's 340.'"
So between Hahn and Williams, they covered basically the whole spectrum of optimism. But I'm hoping expectations will be on the guarded optimism side, at least initially.
A private fellow
During the media conference, Abreu explained how he came to wear No. 79 -- he asked his mother to pick a number, and she picked one people would be able to remember him by.
He's only the third major-league to wear No. 79, and that might be the only way he stands out, at least at the onset of his career. He certainly doesn't pitch himself as an instant dynamo. Speaking through translator Lou Hernandez, Abreu described himself as somebody who prefers to stay at home. He spoke fondly of his parents, and from watching him and seeing these poignant photos of him on the field, there is more going on than anybody can really fathom from the outside.
I don't have nearly enough to make comparisons with any certainty, but I'm treating Jose Contreras' adjustment period as a baseline. This article by Jorge Arangure Jr. is a terrific recap of Contreras' difficult assimilation period:
Contreras' first year in the majors, in 2003, coincided with my first year covering baseball on a full-time basis in New York. He and I would often talk in the Yankee clubhouse about his children and wife, who he had left behind in Cuba. He spoke to them as often as he could. Contreras in that first year in New York lived a lonely, and somewhat, sad existence. He was separated from his loved ones -- his father died that year -- he couldn't communicate fully with the American press unless he was accompanied by a translator, and he was trying to adjust to a world, an environment, a culture he hardly understood.
There are Cuban exiles, like Aroldis Chapman for example, who craved the material things America could offer, and whose adjustment is easier because they revel in all the new things they find. Contreras was not one of those. He simply wanted to be recognized for his abilities as a baseball player, and to provide his children with a better life.
Contreras didn't come into his own until his third season, when he had the stability of his reunited family and a front office that didn't jerk him around while the media second-guessed every part of it. Abreu shouldn't have the same circus around him, he sounds prepared to minimize distractions, and he should have more support, but everybody's on their own schedule.
While he received the biggest contract in White Sox history in terms of dollars, he's going to be paid like a cog over his first couple years, earning a $7.5 million salary in 2014 and 2015. But beyond the terms of his contract, we won't get a true gauge of expectations until the offseason is over. Hahn said that there are more moves to be made, and those transactions will tell us far more about what the Sox expect Abreu to contribute immediately.
Then again, any one-year turnaround from a 99-loss season will need overachievers. Abreu will have to minimize his adjustment period, Avisail Garcia will have to maintain his momentum, and Gordon Beckham and Viciedo will have to "make" instead of "break." Unless Hahn has an overhaul in mind beyond our wildest imaginations, Abreu might be prone to isolation, but he isn't going to be alone, and he'll have more security than anyone.