For the past nine seasons, Jose Abreu has been a White Sox mainstay, serving as their primary first baseman and displaying uncanny durability by appearing in 93.6% of the team’s possible games. With his three-year, $50MM contract now drawing to a close, however, it’s fair to wonder whether the 35-year-old (36 in January) has played his final game with the ChiSox. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale wrote recently that the Sox plan to let Abreu move on in free agency this winter, and Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times offers a similar sentiment, writing that the Sox are planning to move Andrew Vaughn back to his natural position, first base.
Certainly, there’s room for both Vaughn and Abreu on the roster, but such an arrangement inherently pushes the Sox to divide first base, designated hitter and corner outfield duties between Abreu, Vaughn and slugger Eloy Jimenez. Both Vaughn and Jimenez are among the game’s worst-ranked defenders in the outfield. Jimenez has posted -15 Defensive Runs Saved and -16 Outs Above Average in 1957 career innings in the outfield. Vaughn effectively matched those totals (-14 DRS, -16 OAA) in 2022 alone, through just 645 innings. Moving on from Abreu would allow Vaughn to play his natural position with Jimenez seeing the lion’s share of playing time at designated hitter.
Also telling is Van Schouwen reporting that the Sox’ decision to re-sign Abreu the last time he reached free agency, following the 2019 season, was a decision directly from owner Jerry Reinsdorf. The front office “was not 100% behind” the idea of re-signing Abreu to a long-term deal, but Reinsdorf himself put forth the $50MM offer to Abreu after the slugger had accepted a one-year, $17.8MM qualifying offer.
On the one hand, that ownership-driven decision saddled the team with some less-than-ideal defensive alignments for the next three seasons. Jimenez was already established at the time of the signing. Vaughn had already been drafted and was widely expected to be a fast riser through the system. There was no clear defensive fit on the roster for all three.
On the other, Abreu more than justified the expenditure, playing all but 15 of the White Sox’ games over that three-year term and posting a combined .289/.366/.489 slash (137 wRC+). He was the decisive first-place finisher in 2020 American League MVP voting and followed that with a 30-homer campaign in 2021. Even this past season, as Abreu’s power dipped, he topped a .300 batting average and struck out in a career-low 16.2% of his plate appearances.
That said, merely writing off this year’s power outage would be an oversimplification. Abreu’s .304/.378/.466 batting line was still excellent (137 wRC+), but he turned in a career-high 47.9% ground-ball rate and elevated the ball with diminishing frequency as the summer wore on. He hit just four home runs after the All-Star break and only six from July 1 through season’s end. Two years removed from hitting 19 home runs in the truncated 60-game season and watching a Herculean 32.8% of his fly-balls leave the yard for home runs, Abreu hit just 15 homers through 157 games and saw that HR/FB ratio plummet to 9.6%.
Again, there’s little denying that Abreu’s end-of-the-day results in 2022 remained excellent, but they were buoyed by a .350 average on balls in play that a plodding slugger of his ilk will be hard-pressed to sustain, particularly if nearly half his batted balls are hit on the ground. Furthermore, the White Sox and any other potential suitors will be more concerned with what they project him to do moving forward. If there are doubts about his ability to elevate the ball and rediscover his power stroke, that’ll weigh on his earning power in free agency. However, if other clubs are confident in his ability to either repeat his 2022 output or, even better, reestablish himself as an annual 30-homer threat, then Nelson Cruz has proven that there could be healthy paydays even into a player’s early 40s.
The other element to consider in Abreu’s future with the Sox, or lack thereof, is the team’s already bloated payroll. Chicago has $121MM in guaranteed money on next year’s books, per Roster Resource, and that’s before exercising Tim Anderson’s $12.5MM club option and before outfielder AJ Pollock likely exercises a $10MM player option. Add in a projected $27.4MM in arbitration salaries (courtesy of MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz), and the South Siders are at a payroll of roughly $170MM, not including pre-arbitration players to round out the 26-man roster.
This past season’s $193MM Opening Day payroll was a franchise record, and the Sox are within striking distance of that sum before even making a single move to address the 2023 roster. Viewed through that lens, it’s less surprising that the Sox appear poised to move on from their longtime first baseman, even if it won’t be an easy sell for fans who’ve grown to love Abreu during his nine years with the team.