That big bang resounding from the South Side is the magic bat of the latest Cuban ex-pat to rock the game, 27-year-old Jose Abreu, whom even Justin Verlander has dared to call Cabrera-like
THE FRANCHISE that once brought you Disco Demolition Night hosted a different sort of promotion on April 30: Weather Day. Before that afternoon's game against the Tigers, a Chicago television weatherman stood near the home dugout and educated White Sox fans about all things meteorological. Anyone who arrived at U.S. Cellular Field under the impression that snow is always white had another thing coming. (In the Sierra Nevada mountains it occasionally comes down pink, due to a reddish algae.)
Fact is, this year's White Sox have little need for Veeckian visions to generate fan excitement, as their lineup is so far exploding scoreboards without resorting to pyrotechnics. Chicago lost 99 games in 2013 due in large measure to an offense that averaged 3.7 runs, the fewest in the American League; this year it has crossed home plate 5.3 times per game, third best in the AL. That 43% improvement is attributable to several factors, but everyone agrees on the biggest one: Jose Dariel Abreu, the 6'3", 255-pound 27-year-old who escaped from his native Cuba last August and signed a six-year, $68 million contract with the White Sox in October. After his first 32 games in the majors, he led baseball with 12 home runs and the AL with 34 RBIs.
Front offices around the majors began to figure out well before Weather Day that they had erred when forecasting Abreu's value. On April 10, against the Indians, Abreu had his second two-homer game in three days, and also hit a foul so hard that he ripped open the baseball's seams. Twelve days later he homered off Justin Verlander on the second pitch he ever saw from the former Cy Young winner. "I think he could be Miguel Cabrera--like," says the Tigers' ace. "I hesitate to throw that comparison out there, because Miggy's on a different planet. But he's got that ability to hit to the opposite field, with power. He's got the ability to hit for average, without speed. And he can handle a lot of pitches. Long way to go. But the talent's there."
Given that Cabrera, winner of the last two AL MVP awards, will earn an average of $29.2 million each year between now and 2023, an average salary of $11.3 million for a player who is Cabrera-like but also four years younger than the genuine article seems like a steal. Several Cuban players who have recently signed big-money deals have proved to be bargains, particularly A's leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes and Dodgers' rightfielder Yasiel Puig. But Abreu had negotiating advantages that those two didn't have. The success of Cespedes in jumping from Cuba's Serie Nacional to the majors in '12 offered a strong precedent for Abreu. And while Puig had minimal professional experience before he signed, Abreu was the Cuban league's most productive hitter: In the 2010--11 season he batted .453 with 33 home runs and 93 RBIs in just 66 games. Major league clubs had been following him for years in international competitions like the World Baseball Classic.
With that leverage, Abreu was able to command almost twice as much as the A's bid for Cespedes in February 2012, and roughly 40% more than Puig received the following June. Given the size of the deal and the natural uncertainty of how Abreu would adapt to the majors, front-office executives around the game—including, to some degree, the White Sox'—had several reasons to fear that Abreu's contract was a mistake. It has taken the slugger just one month to erase those worries.
RICK HAHN was picking up a pizza on the evening of Aug. 11, 2013, when he checked his Twitter feed. Over the previous two weeks Hahn, then in his first season as the White Sox' general manager after 10 years as Kenny Williams's assistant, had shaved nearly $28 million off his payroll by trading Jake Peavy to the Red Sox and Alex Rios to the Rangers, freeing up funds for a much-needed rebuilding effort. He could scarcely believe the timing of the news he was seeing. Jose Abreu, the great Cuban slugger, had escaped to Haiti and would soon be available to the highest bidder. He forwarded the tweet to Williams, now the team's executive vice president, as well as owner Jerry Reinsdorf. "It almost had a Sidd Finch feel to it," Hahn says. "All of a sudden there's a guy available who is capable of these Nintendo-type numbers who could fit right in your lineup, and we happened to have cash for it."
In early October, Abreu's agents, Barry Praver and Bart Hernandez, arranged a two-day showcase at the Yankees' baseball academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. Some 200 major league scouts and executives attended, and the lasting memory for many was not what they saw, but what they heard. "It was just like, crack ... silence ... bang, over and over," says one exec. The crack was the sound of Abreu's bat meeting baseball. The silence was the ball soaring through the air. The bang came when it landed on the corrugated roof of an equipment shed 100 feet beyond the centerfield wall.
Williams watched with a White Sox scout named Marco Paddy, who had followed Abreu for four years and seen him take at least 75 at bats in international tournaments in such places as Japan, the Netherlands, Panama and Puerto Rico. Paddy's assessment: a cross between Andres Galarraga and Albert Pujols. Williams liked not just Abreu's power but also the way he would follow his shed pepperings with a controlled series of liners to the opposite field. Williams's report to Hahn and Reinsdorf was unequivocal: "Boys, I want this guy, and I want him bad." He recommended an aggressive offer of four years and $40 million.
Two weeks later the White Sox were among five clubs—the others, sources say, were the Astros, Brewers, Red Sox and Rockies—who had pushed their bids for Abreu north of six years and $60 million. After Chicago submitted its final offer of $68 million to Praver in the early-morning hours of Oct. 17, Williams poured himself a tall glass of Absolut Orient. "I drank that s--- straight," he says. For Hahn, it was Johnnie Walker Black. Later that day Abreu agreed to not just the largest contract for any Cuban ever, but also the largest in White Sox history.
You could understand the trepidation of both the White Sox and their competitors. Yes, Abreu had torn up the Serie Nacional, but what was he tearing up? "You've got like five to 10 players in the Cuban league that are world-class guys, and then the rest of the league doesn't have any depth," says an executive of one club whose pursuit of Abreu fell short. "The worst pitchers in the league are high school quality."
There was also the reality that while Cespedes and Puig are all-around athletes who can impact a game even if they don't hit, Abreu's glove and speed are no better than average—his value is tied solely to his bat. And for all the power and poise Abreu displayed in Boca Chica, his bat speed failed to impress most of the talent evaluators. But the White Sox resisted those more skeptical inclinations—and in so doing appear to have added one of the most productive hitters in the world at less than his true worth. This year Abreu will earn a prorated $8.7 million, making him the majors' 128th highest-paid player, just below Angels shortstop Erick Aybar. "You end up in this weird situation where the price seems crazy," says one rival scouting executive. "But if it turns out great, not only is it not crazy, and not only did you get good value, you got crazy value."
ABREU'S LIFE as Cuba's Cabrera wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either. He had a fairly comfortable house. He did not have a car. He earned about $15 a month, and he supplemented his income by reselling clothes and cellphones that a pastor in Hialeah, Fla., a Cuban expat, would send him. He was aware of the success that Puig, who batted in front of him in the Cienfuegos lineup in 2011, and Cespedes were having in the United States—he was able to watch them when his Cuban teams stayed in hotels with satellite television—but he did not endeavor to escape himself until he received the blessing of his mother, Daisy Correa. Abreu says that he will not reveal details of his flight until the rest of his family has safely joined him in the U.S. While his wife, Yusmary, came with him, he says his mother and father, Jose, are currently somewhere outside Cuba, waiting to be cleared to emigrate. His three-year-old son from a previous relationship, Dariel, remains in Cuba, and Abreu has been sending money for his care.
Upon arriving in the U.S., many Cuban players have come down with Christmas Every Day syndrome: difficulty abstaining from the seemingly unlimited opportunities suddenly available to them. But the most remarkable thing about Abreu's adjustment to his new home is how unremarkable it has been. Abreu shuns Chicago's nightlife ("If I ever have the feeling that I want to listen to music or whatever, I like to do it at home," he says), and he has not been splashy with his newfound riches. "He's probably grasped the concept of money probably a little better than most," says White Sox DH Adam Dunn. "He doesn't have all the Louis Vuitton stuff. I think he has a better concept of it than a lot of us, actually."
"I left a whole life behind me," Abreu says, "so I want to make sure that when I use that money, I use it for the right things."
Abreu is often referred to in the White Sox' clubhouse as the "anti-Puig," and he allows that he has a different personality from his former teammate. "Yasiel, as you can see, is a guy with a lot of energy and a lot of emotions," he says. "I'm a little more calmed down. I like to watch before I do, and understand before I act."
While Puig has stood out for almost everything he has done with the Dodgers, Abreu has quietly integrated himself into his team. He arrives at the ballpark early, around noon for a 7 p.m. first pitch, but he is not the first one there. "Daniel Webb's here first," says teammate Paul Konerko, of his club's rookie reliever. "I'm second. He's here third." Abreu is large, with a thick torso and sloped shoulders, but not the type of chiseled behemoth who draws stares whenever he enters a room. "Just boring production," says the 38-year-old Konerko, who was himself one of baseball's most consistently boring producers for a decade a half and is now Abreu's backup. "That's the best kind."
"It would be hard to predict anything less than 35-ish homers, and I think he could finish the season close to, if not over .300," says a member of a rival front office that maintains proprietary projections for all the league's players. Last season two players batted better than .300 with at least 35 home runs: Cabrera, the AL MVP, and the Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt, the runner-up for NL MVP.
Hahn knows that one day there will be no bargains on the Cuban market. "Eventually, they'll be priced the same way as domestic free agents," he says. As the White Sox wait to see what Jose Abreu will do once the Chicago weather warms ("It's hard to hit with the cold, there's no doubt about it," he says), it was clear that it hasn't happened yet.
"I'm a little more calmed down [than Puig]. I like to watch before I do, and understand before I act."
DOLLARS a month that Abreu earned as a player in Cuba's Serie Nacional. In October he signed a six-year, $68 million deal with Chicago.
HOMERS, with 93 RBIs, that Abreu hit in Cuba in the 2010--11 season, in just 66 games. He also batted .453.
PERCENT increase in runs scored per game from last season to this season for the White Sox. Abreu has driven in 21% of Chicago's 163 runs.
Photograph by Fred Vuich for Sports Illustrated
BOMBS AWAY There were some questions about Abreu's bat speed but not his raw power, which delivered a rookie-record 10 homers in April.
Photograph by Fred Vuich for Sports Illustrated
KEIZO MORI/UPI /LANDOV (RED)
POWERFUL COMPANY Abreu's opposite-field stroke invokes comparisons to that of two-time MVP Cabrera (right).
ANDREW HANCOCK FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ABREU AND CABRERA)
[See caption above]