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From Paul Konerko to Jose Abreu?

As the White Sox's first baseman approaches the end of his career, a intriguing possible replacement emerges in the form of a Cuban defector

Chung Sung-Jun

A monthlong absence wasn't quite the cure for what ails Paul Konerko. Since returning from the disabled list on July 22, there isn't too much of a difference:

  • Before: .249/.314/.368
  • After: .224/.277/.329

There are flashes of life, but not enough to sustain any kind of forward-thinking optimism. When you consider his age (37), the nature of his injury (described as "some degeneration in one of the discs") and then stack them against his performance ... well, it's awfully hard to see Konerko trying to do it again next year.

Scot Gregor thinks as much, too:

There are still 45 games to play, but it looks like the Paul Konerko farewell is already heating up.

As we reported in today’s paper, Konerko’s contract expires at the end of the season, he’s 37 years old and he’s batting .242 with 9 home runs and 40 RBI during an injury-riddled season.

If I would have to guess, Konerko is not going to play again next season. If he does, it would likely be with another team.

Gordon Beckham offered a contrary opinion when asked if he might take a greater leadership role as the roster sheds its veteran talent and salaries:

"If Paul wants to play, he’ll play," Beckham said. "Obviously that’s a decision for him after the season. He’s got a lot more left in the tank, so I wouldn’t rule him out of playing next year. If he doesn’t, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But I think he’s got a while yet."

One could read that response as delusional, because "a lot left in the tank" is a stretch at best. But I'm interpreting it as polite/respectful. It's clear that Beckham has modeled himself after Konerko -- sometimes with his stance and pre-swing routine, even -- and I wouldn't expect him to openly speculate about a matter Konerko himself refuses to answer. I think it's fair to ask the question of Beckham given all the players who are no longer around, and I'd expect him to avoid answering it until Konerko confirmed that he wouldn't be returning.

Konerko's spot is one of many the White Sox have to upgrade around the diamond, and the Sox freed up quite a bit of cash to use for additions from the outside, although the free-agent talent pool seems pretty shallow.

First base was one of those trouble spots -- headlined by Mike Napoli -- until some big news came out of the Caribbean on Monday from Baseball America's Ben Badler:

Jose Abreu, the premier offensive player in Cuba, has left the island and will try to sign with a major league team, Baseball America has learned.

Abreu, a 26-year-old first baseman, has played professionally in Cuba since the 2003-04 season, so he will be able to sign as a free agent exempt from the international signing bonus pools, with a massive major league contract likely headed his way.

According to Badler's write-up, Abreu is a big fella (6'2", 258 lbs.) who is limited to first base. His age and lack of defensive versatility actually works in the White Sox's favor, because it limits Abreu's suitors. Other Cuban defectors like Yasiel Puig (22 years old) and Jorge Soler (21) entered American professional ball as outfield prospects, which meant that any team with deep pockets could sign them first and figure out what to do with them later.

Whoever signs Abreu has to have an immediate plan, and there will be some deep-pocketed clubs who also have the playing time -- Badler names the Rangers and Red Sox as obvious fits, and throws in the Pirates as well, since they could have postseason cash to spend. However, other big spenders with pricey commitments at first -- the Yankees, Dodgers, Phillies, Angels and Tigers, for instance -- probably wouldn't be able to take such a great risk.

And Abreu is a risk. BA called him the fourth-best World Baseball Classic prospect among those who hadn't signed with an MLB club, mostly because he didn't offer the defensive value of two of his teammates. There are some concerns about his swing, though:

Abreu has put up cartoonish numbers in Serie Nacional. After hitting .394/.542/.837 with 35 home runs, 75 walks and 40 strikeouts in 71 games last year, Abreu is leading Cuba in OBP and slugging with a .382/.535/.735 line in 42 games this season. So how many MVP awards would Abreu win if he came to the big leagues? Well, not everyone is even convinced he’d be able to handle major league pitching.

Abreu, 26, has outstanding power to all fields. He’s a smart hitter, his hands work well at the plate and he doesn’t have much effort in his righthanded swing. When he gets a mistake, he makes pitchers pay. The question scouts have is whether he’s more than just a mistake hitter. Abreu has picked up bad habits in Cuba, including an unorthodox setup with a double toe tap in his stride. He cuts himself off and has only fair bat speed, leaving him vulnerable to even average velocity inside. He can handle curveballs in the strike zone but he also showed he was susceptible to chasing hard breaking stuff away, swinging through several sliders at the tournament. With his marginal athleticism, scouts wonder whether the 6-foot-2, 258-pounder would be able to make adjustments against big league pitching, which is why some scouts aren’t wild about him despite his performance record in Cuba and international competition.

(Those uniforms really aren't flattering.)

A couple White Sox players vouched for Abreu's reputation. Dayan Viciedo said, "He's got a really good bat. He can hit. I remember that," and said he would help recruit him if the need arose. Andre Rienzo disputed Abreu's listed height to Phil Rogers, as the 6-foot-3-inch pitcher said Abreu had him by at least a couple inches.

Badler said it'll probably take several months for Abreu to meet all the requirements before hitting the market, and there'll be lots of scouting and video work to do in the interim, so there's no use in coming to a verdict now (although KenWo's already spent the money). But given the jolt that Puig and Yoenis Cespedes gave to their respective franchises, it's easy to see the fit and dream big.

And thanks to Rick Hahn's contract-dumping over the last two weeks, it might very well be within the White Sox's reach. The Sox prized financial flexibility for opportunities like this one, and they better do all the due diligence they can possibly muster.