Jose Abreu sure looks like he's for real

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
1:15
AM CT
Crasnick By Jerry Crasnick
ESPNChicago.com
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Jose Abreu and Avisail Garcia were together for only eight regular-season games, but it was long enough for the Chicago White Sox to glimpse the possibilities.

In a 15-3 win over the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on Saturday, the two young Sox combined for four homers, eight RBIs, a whopping 51 pitches seen and enough synergy to deflate an opposing pitching staff's morale. One of them had barely arrived at home plate when the other was waiting at the top step of the dugout to congratulate him.

Even for an organization that's been home to Frank Thomas, Carlos Lee, Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye and Alex Rios since the early 2000s, it was an impressive display of raw right-handed power -- mile-high altitude notwithstanding.

That helps explain why the atmosphere was initially so downbeat at U.S. Cellular Field on Thursday. The White Sox received word that Garcia will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, and now Abreu will have to navigate his rookie year without the teammate who was shaping up to be his designated wingman.

In a pregame briefing with the media, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn called it a "lousy" day. He observed that it "stinks for the kid" and called the injury "one of the crueler realities of sports." It seemed a little odd, in this spring of assembly line Tommy John surgeries for pitchers, to watch a front-office executive lament the fate of an outfielder felled by a serious arm injury. But that didn't make the scene any less poignant or Hahn's sentiments any less heartfelt.

If Hahn felt better driving home than he felt driving in to the Cell, Jose Abreu deserves a big share of the credit.

Abreu helped lift the mood with another big night. He hit two homers and drove in three runs to extend his American League-leading total to 14 as the White Sox beat up on Danny Salazar and the Cleveland bullpen for a 7-3 win over the Indians.

The Sox are only 5-5 in their first 10 games, but that's a product of back-of-the-rotation issues and a shaky bullpen rather than anything to do with their offense. Hahn earned a lot of praise from his peers during the offseason for changing Chicago's lineup from a portrait in station-to-station dullness into something more vibrant and dynamic, and the early numbers suggest that he succeeded in his mission.

[+] EnlargeJose Abreu
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJose Abreu hit two home runs and drove in three runs in the White Sox's 7-3 win over the Indians on Thursday.
A Chicago team that ranked last in the American League with 3.7 runs per game a year ago leads the league with 6.1 so far this season. The Sox also rank first in the AL in hits, homers, OPS and total bases. Shortstop Alexei Ramirez and catcher Tyler Flowers are off to tremendous starts, and Adam Eaton has provided the energy the White Sox hoped for in the leadoff spot even though he only has three walks and one stolen base to this point.

Most telling, Abreu is giving the Sox reason to think he'll be everything they hoped for when they invested $68 million in him.

The FanGraphs breakdown makes it clear how opposing staffs are approaching Chicago's new cleanup hitter out of the chute. Entering Thursday's game, Abreu had seen fastballs only 45.2 percent of the time -- the eighth lowest ratio of any hitter in the majors. Conversely, he's seen changeups 18.6 percent of the time -- the eighth highest ratio of that particular pitch.

But Abreu is equal parts opportunistic and resourceful. Salazar threw him three fastballs in the mid-90s and a pair of changeups during a second-inning confrontation. Then he hung a slider, and Abreu pulverized it to center field for a homer.

Three innings later, lefty reliever Josh Outman started Abreu off with a changeup and back-to-back 91 mph fastballs before opting for a slider. Abreu roped that one to left for another homer.

Although it's still very early, the Latin American scouts who questioned Abreu's bat speed and wondered how he might fare against elite pitching might want to take a second look. Based on the opinions of those scouts -- who pegged him as a .260 hitter who might be good for 25-30 home runs -- I picked Abreu as my preseason AL Rookie of the Year. But now I'm starting to wonder if he's better than advertised.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura keeps gushing about Abreu's quick bat and his balance at the plate, and everyone around the team has raved about Abreu's work ethic and professional approach since day one. Those attributes bode well for Abreu's ability to adjust to opposing staffs as they adapt to him.

"The first time around the league, teams kind of feel you out," said an AL scout. "Then the scouting reports start kicking in. I'm anxious to see him the second time around. I thought the ball on the inner half would give him trouble. But he knows how to hit. He's got a nice approach. He goes to right-center field with it. If he sees enough cripple pitching, he'll knock the heck out of it."

Thus far, Abreu seems to have a knack for getting the bat head to the ball. The early FanGraphs numbers show that he's swung at pitches outside the strike zone 44.3 percent of the time, which makes him one of the 10 least selective hitters in the majors. But Abreu has only five strikeouts to go with three walks in 40 at-bats. In that 15-3 onslaught against Colorado, he eyeballed 32 pitches in six plate appearances.

Talk all you want about Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes, but Chicago is the epicenter of Cuban baseball in America right now. Abreu, Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo and catcher Adrian Nieto gave manager Robin Ventura four Cuban players in the starting lineup against Cleveland. Chicago's farm system is improving and the Sox are committed to international scouting, and that's what it will take to get them to .500 and back into contending mode.

The loss of Garcia clearly hurts. The White Sox are following the Kansas City model of year-by-year improvement, so it's tough to accept the idea of a wasted season for a 22-year-old middle-of-the-order cog. Never mind the uncertainty of the shoulder injury and what kind of impact it might have on Garcia's power when he returns.

But if the consolation prize is watching Abreu hit, there are worse things. As White Sox broadcaster Steve Stone observed after Abreu's two-homer performance against Cleveland, "There's no part of the ballpark he can't reach."

There will be good days and bad days on Chicago's South Side this season. But it has a chance to be an entertaining summer watching Jose Abreu get acquainted with U.S. Cellular Field, one bleacher section at a time.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Chris Sale
WINS ERA SO IP
10 1.88 122 110
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Abreu .294
HRJ. Abreu 30
RBIJ. Abreu 79
RJ. Abreu 54
OPSJ. Abreu .963
ERAC. Sale 1.88
SOC. Sale 122