Richard Justice: José Abreu is about as close to a perfect fit as the Astros could have dreamed

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Nam Y Huh/AP/Shutterstock (13441212p) Chicago White Sox’s Jose Abreu, left, laughs with Yasmani Grandal in the dugout before a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, in Chicago Twins White Sox Baseball, Chicago, United States – 05 Oct 2022

Richard Justice: José Abreu is about as close to a perfect fit as the Astros could have dreamed

Whenever the Chicago White Sox acquired a young player, especially a young Latino, in recent years, they would assign him a locker as close to José Abreu’s as possible. 

At every level of the White Sox organization, there was admiration about how Abreu prided himself on doing everything right. In that way, young players surely would benefit by watching how one of the game’s most respected veterans went about his business.

He sometimes showed up six or seven hours before first pitch and poured himself into a pre-game routine that was relentlessly disciplined in terms of video, batting practice and scouting reports. If that sounds like, say, Jose Altuve, the Astros are thinking the same thing.

Abreu prided himself on playing hurt and always seeing his name on the lineup card. When he’d be forced to take an occasional day off, reporters would joke: “Taking another day off, huh?”

He missed all of 18 games the last four seasons, and even when he was banged up, believed there was something he could do to help the White Sox win a game. Sounds like Alex Bergman, doesn’t it?

Abreu mentored young players quietly, whispering advice on everything from nutrition to batting practice to professionalism on and off the field. The Astros have a bunch of players like that, including Martín Maldonado.

In signing Abreu, 35, the Astros will either not re-sign Yuli Gurriel or bring him back as a bench player. He’s one of their most respected and beloved veterans, but after a season in which his .648 OPS was dead last among 18 qualifying first basemen and the Astros won the World Series despite scoring 116 fewer runs than they had in 2021, it was time for a change. (Abreu’s .824 OPS was fifth.)

The Astros would have preferred a left-handed hitter to offset a heavy right-handed lineup. But in Abreu, they got someone who is as close to the Astros prototype of what a player should be as virtually anyone available in free agency. There’s some risk in giving a three-year, $58.5-million contract to a 35-year-old.

But there was little indication he’s in decline after a season in which he had 40 doubles, 15 home runs and a .378 on-base average. He’ll turn 36 in January, but his OPS+ increased from 124 in 2021 to 133 in 2022. An OPS+ of 100 is league average, so Abreu was 33 percent above that this season.

The Astros pride themselves on putting the ball in play, so Abreu’s 19.8 percent strikeout rate and 76.7 percent contact rate are perfect fits. His 51.8 percent hard-hit rate ranked fourth in all of MLB, trailing only Aaron Judge, (61.8%), Yordan Alvarez (59.8%) and Kyle Schwarber (54.4%).

Now about that work ethic. Early in his career, White Sox manager Ricky Renteria laid down the law that if Abreu wanted to avoid being a career Designated Hitter he’d better get to work on his defense.

Abreu responded to the challenge by spending hours on pre-game infield drills, and while he’s still not a great first baseman, he’s plenty good enough.

Like Altuve, Abreu carries himself with a combination of humility and optimism that plays well in the clubhouse over the course of a long season. His respect for everyone from the highest levels of an organization to the very bottom will win him plenty of friends on his new team.

To those of us that have covered Abreu on and off through the years, we’ll never forget the evening he accepted the 2020 American League Most Valuable Player Award.

He was surrounded by family members that night, many of them having help him escape Cuba in 2014, and as he thought about all of it, his emotions got the best of him.

He put his head on the desk at which he was sitting, and his family smothered him with hugs and kisses as tears streamed down his face. At one point, he lifted his head and pointed to a photo of his late grandmother. 

 “She was my life,” he said through interpreter Billy Russo.

In reflecting on some of what he had learned, Abreu added: “I’m a very thankful person, and I’m very grateful to have had that help and to have those people, the people that I have right now around me. It’s because of them I was able to get to this point.”

 He choked back tears again when he spoke of his mom, adding, “She’s why I do every single thing every day. She’s my motivation.

He mentioned his teammates, coaches and managers as well, adding: “This is not a one-man award. There are a lot of people that help you to get to this point and to win an award like this. Winning this award doesn’t make me bigger or better than the other players. It won’t make me do things in a different way.”

The Astros in 2023 will be attempting to play in the World Series for the fifth time in the last seven seasons. If they win it again, they’ll be the first repeat champion since the 1999-2000 Yankees. They have other holes to fill and a general manager to hire. But the signing of Abreu is a great start to the off-season.

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1 Comment

  • Great article, welcome to Houston Abreu!

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