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Jose Abreu stakes claim to first base, not DH

Commitment from management pays off with improved defensive metrics, but less of a need for Adam LaRoche

Jason Miller/Getty Images

With awards season on the horizon, SABR released its latest Defensive Index rankings on Friday. If you're unfamiliar with the Defensive Index, it accounts for 25 percent of the Gold Glove selection process by aggregating five kinds of defensive metrics.

As you might expect, there is nary a White Sox among the American League's top 25 defenders. Breaking it down by position, the Sox don't have any likely Gold Glove finalists, either. At best, they have a couple of respectable representatives (SDI and positon's leaders in parentheses):

  • Jose Quintana: Fourth among pitchers (2.1; Dallas Keuchel, 8.3)
  • Tyler Flowers: Fifth among catchers (2.9; Jason Castro, 6.5)

If Tyler Saladino had enough playing time to qualify, he'd probably show well in these rankings. As it stands, Carlos Sanchez is the only other White Sox whose ranking starts with a positive "1." On the other side of the ledger, shortstop and all three outfield positions are giving away runs.

There is one number I'd like to highlight in the middle, though:

  • Jose Abreu: Ninth among first basemen (0.2; Mike Napoli, 4.6)

There's nothing special about this at a glance. If you're familiar with what the metrics said during his rookie season, though, this is an average grade with a gold star. An ordinarily humble 0.2 marks a sizable improvement over his index from 2014, which matched the subsequent evaluation from The FIelding Bible:

"Abreu's first season defensively was one of the worst by any first baseman in baseball in 2014. He is simply a big bulky guy built to hit for power and not to be a game changer on defense. [...] Unfortunately, it's only a matter of time before Abreu will need to transition to DH."

I understood where that assessment came from, but I thought it was a little pessimistic about Abreu's chances for improvement. He brought atrocious footwork from Cuba, and he needed a couple of months to break some awful habits. Once he started to smooth out his actions around the bag, Robin Ventura said he felt better about getting him more involved in shifting.

Moreover, I remembered Alexei Ramirez transforming from a below-average second baseman in his rookie year to standout shortstop in his sophomore season, which wasn't supposed to happen (Ozzie Guillen scouted him well there). Perhaps it's the homer coming out, but I thought Abreu deserved one more year before drawing a firm conclusion.

While the metrics vary a little on the specific quality of Abreu's defensive, they all agree that he's improved upon his rookie season. At the very least, he's not the liability he was in 2014, and the most generous interpretation says he's even a bit of an asset.

2014 2015 ???
UZR/150 -3.2 -1.3 -5.2
DRS -11 2 0
Plus-minus -9 +1 -3
SDI -5.6 0.2 -0.5

(While UZR is bearish, it's mostly due to his error count -- three more in seven fewer starts -- which seems fair. He's made some avoidable mistakes.)

And what's the mystery column at the end? Why, that's how Adam LaRoche scored in 2014 as a full-time first baseman for the Washington Nationals. While he was a Gold Glove-caliber defender for several years, the metrics had seen a steady drop-off over his time with the Nats.

The playing-time split at first base had been a point of questioning -- and sometimes contention -- with Ventura. He never adopted the original plan (two LaRoche starts at first base a week), because Abreu doesn't like DHing and Ventura said he was "too talented" to keep him off the field on a regular basis.

Whether it came at the expense of LaRoche's career is a legitimate question, and it was easy enough to draw that conclusion over the first month or two. The way his game has collapsed since makes any one reason harder to identify ...

LaRoche April-June July-now
As 1B .268/.361/.563
53 PA
92 PA
As DH .216/.327/.329
194 PA
95 PA

... since he's played more first base and faced fewer lefties over the last 2½ months. He's only seen left-handed pitching 30 times since July 1, and it shouldn't surprise you that he's 1-for-29 with one HBP in those looks. The first column says AL life is the problem. The second says he might be hurt and/or toast.

We only know what Ventura and the White Sox chose, and that was to effectively quarantine LaRoche's struggles from Abreu's defensive development. Abreu hasn't been a stranger to the DH spot; in fact, he's started 38 games there. But the more frequent appearances there were on his terms, or at least the terms of the body parts failing him at the time. When healthy, Ventura penciled him into the lineup at first for stretches of nine or 12 games in a row, even though the DH penalty hasn't applied to his numbers this season.

Prioritizing Abreu made sense, considering he's under contract for three years beyond the commitment to LaRoche, and it would suck to have to relegate him to DH so early in his career. That part seems to have worked out, and even though we can't confidently project further meaningful improvement from Abreu, he strengthened his game enough to justify starting over a declining LaRoche, even if he might look less fluid in the field.

In and of itself, that's great news. Abreu deserves to get his choice of roles, and he's also holding up his end of the bargain. It just bittersweet that LaRoche was so easy to marginalize. Should the White Sox find a way to reconstruct the DH sooner rather than later, they'll probably want to look at that roster spot as something else than somebody who has to settle for Abreu's leftovers.