First-quarter progress report: Abreu is king

May, 16, 2014
5/16/14
3:02
PM CT
Padilla By Doug Padilla
ESPNChicago.com
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Despite being just one game better at this point than they were last season, the Chicago White Sox are a vastly better team that projects to only improve.

That has been the biggest reveal from the first quarter of the 2014 season, as a quick roster reshuffle has yielded fast results with more improvement necessary.

[+] EnlargeJose Abreu
Brian Kersey/Getty ImagesJose Abreu's $68 million contract looks like a bargain after the first quarter of the season.
It is a far cry from the veteran-laden 2013 club that only managed to get worse once the calendar flipped to June.

Jose Abreu is the biggest reason that everybody can see a brighter future on the South Side. The 27-year-old rookie has exceeded all expectations and is making his six-year, $68 million offseason deal look like a steal.

Abreu heads into Friday's game at Houston leading the major leagues with 15 home runs, 27 extra-base hits, 103 total bases and an 11.07 home-run-to-at-bat ratio. Only Abreu and Wally Berger, way back in 1930, have hit at least 15 home runs and recorded at least 40 RBIs over their first 42 major league games.

"It's obviously a very positive thing for the organization," general manager Rick Hahn said of Abreu's hot start. "But it's an individual accomplishment and something he should be very proud of because of all the challenges he faced. It's awfully difficult to perform at the big league level when you've been preparing for this your whole life, much less when you've had to disrupt your entire life, leave your family and play in a new league in a new city with a new language around you.

"It's a tremendous accomplishment. We view it as certainly a positive sign that an important part of what we're trying to build is off to a good start."

If the White Sox can stay healthy, they might get a better idea of what the current roster can do. Avisail Garcia was supposed to form a 1-2 punch with Abreu, but he was lost in the second week of the season to a shoulder injury.

Chris Sale (strained flexor muscle) and Adam Eaton (strained hamstring) are dealing with injuries that have slowed the pitching staff and offense, respectively. Even Abreu has been hobbled by a sore left ankle, but he has managed to produce through the pain.

Yet for as good as Abreu has been, the biggest surprise this season might be the bullpen's transformation from a struggling unit to a dependable one. On April 26, the bullpen had a combined 5.20 ERA, but since then, its 2.86 mark is the lowest in the American League and fourth-best in baseball.

FIRST QUARTER MVP: Abreu

It can't be understated what an amazing feat it has been for Abreu to go from zero major league experience to one of the best hitters in the game over the first seven weeks. His ability to hit the ball where it is pitched has been his greatest asset, while his sheer strength has helped, as well.

It remains to be seen what will happen when he starts seeing teams over and over again, but there is plenty of film and scouting reports on him now, and he's still hitting .333 (12-for-36) with three doubles, three home runs and six RBIs over his last nine games.

Against right-handed pitching, the right-handed hitting Abreu is batting .293 (36-for-123) with 11 home runs and 34 RBIs. With runners in scoring position, he is hitting .341 (14-for-41) with five home runs, 29 RBIs.

FIRST QUARTER CY YOUNG: Jose Quintana

[+] EnlargeJose Quintana
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesThe White Sox offense has once again struggled to support Jose Quintana.
The left-handed Quintana can't get any love in the form of run support, so we'll give it to him here by recognizing him as the best pitcher over the first quarter of the season. Quintana has a 3.67 ERA over eight starts, getting the nod primarily because Sale has been out of action with his strained arm muscle.

The fact that Quintana only has one victory to go with his low ERA should not be surprising. He couldn't get any run support last season, either, setting a franchise record, as well as an American League record, with 17 no-decisions. His 31 career no-decisions since 2012 are the most in the major leagues.

His seven quality starts this year are tied for third-most in the AL, so clearly he's doing something right. The fact that the offense has scored 10 runs for him combined over his last six starts shows why he's one of the bigger hard-luck pitchers in the game.

FIRST QUARTER COMEBACK PLAYER: Alexei Ramirez

With the personal issues behind him, Ramirez has been the kind of impact player the White Sox hoped they would be getting when they signed him to a four-year, $32.5 million contract extension that could run through 2016 if a club option is exercised.

He entered play Friday second in the American League in hits (52) and multihit games (16). His .319 batting average was fourth-best in the league and his .404 batting average with runners in scoring position was fifth-best.

Traditionally a slow starter, Ramirez showed early that this season would be different, setting a franchise record with 40 hits before May 1. He also had a franchise-record 17-game hit streak to start the season. And it's all coming from a player who leads the league in innings played with 374.

FIRST QUARTER GRADE: B

A 20-22 record is nothing to toast with champagne, but the White Sox have shown they are heading in the right direction. Not too many people thought they could be a .500 team this season, and they have nearly hit the mark so far this year while dealing with injuries to Garcia, Sale, Eaton, Gordon Beckham and Nate Jones.

Sure, Abreu and Eaton have been big performers on offense, but players such as Ramirez, Tyler Flowers, Conor Gillaspie, Gordon Beckham and Dayan Viciedo have all been better than a year ago. The defense and base running isn't great, but that has improved, as well.

The White Sox seem to have reversed their fortunes quickly, and the next challenge will be to get better as the season progresses.

Doug Padilla

Chicago White Sox beat reporter
Doug joined ESPN Chicago in July 2010 and covers the Chicago White Sox for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN Radio 1000.

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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Chris Sale
WINS ERA SO IP
12 2.17 208 174
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Abreu .317
HRJ. Abreu 36
RBIJ. Abreu 107
RA. Ramirez 82
OPSJ. Abreu .964
ERAC. Sale 2.17
SOC. Sale 208