Spring Training: Chicago White Sox
Abreu's swing is very clean and pretty -- he has no load, but explodes to the ball as if he'd cocked his hands much further back, so while his path to the ball is extremely short, he has the hand and wrist strength to hit for power.
“I thought he did a great job," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. “As I was watching it take place in July, you could see there was a lot of thought and deliberation put into it. They haven’t gotten a lot of headlines, but the way they’ve gone about it is smart. I think it will pay off."
Jose Dariel Abreu, who will join Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn in a three-pronged first base-DH mix this season, is a big part of that effort. The Sox also added a high-energy center fielder and leadoff hitter in Adam Eaton and a power-hitting third-base prospect in Matt Davidson, and acquired right fielder Avisail Garcia from Detroit as part of the three-way Jake Peavy-Jose Iglesias trade in July.
“We had Abreu in here first, and then Garcia showed up," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “I said, ‘I thought Abreu was really big until Avi got here.'"
Garcia, 22, was 16 years old when he signed with Detroit out of his native Venezuela in 2007. His best season came in 2012, when he hit .299 with 14 homers and 23 stolen bases between Class A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. The Tigers brought him up for the 2012 postseason, and Garcia hit .283 in 72 games between Detroit and Chicago last year. He struck out 59 times and drew only nine walks, so he clearly needs work on his plate discipline.
Between his size and some of his mannerisms at the plate, Garcia shows flashes of his hero, Miguel Cabrera. "He has little things he does that you've seen before and you say, ‘That's from Cabrera,'" Ventura said. “I don’t blame him. I would do the same stuff."
Ventura is admittedly growing tired of trying to project what kind of numbers Abreu and Garcia will put up this season. The White Sox play their first Cactus League game Friday against the Dodgers, and it can’t come soon enough.
“I keep hearing, ‘They could possibly do this, or that,'" Ventura said. “I don’t need to be Nostradamus to prove I knew already. Just let them play. They have a lot of positives. That’s why they’re here in the big leagues. We’re gonna give them a whole year to find out."
Latin American talent evaluators observed that Abreu has more raw power and significantly less athleticism and speed than fellow Cubans Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. Some scouts and journalists brought up Ryan Howard, Mike Piazza, Kendrys Morales or White Sox outfielder (and fellow Cuban) Dayan Viciedo as players with similar attributes, while Cespedes created a stir when he mentioned Abreu in the same breath with Miguel Cabrera.
Abreu, 27, possesses what one scout calls "monster power," so it stands to reason that his batting practice sessions should be replete with tales of smashed car windows and disrupted cloud formations. It would be understandable if he wanted to make a big first impression with his new coaches and teammates and fell victim to the temptation to grip it, rip it and send baseballs to regions where they're tiny specks.
Yet a different picture is emerging early in White Sox camp. When his fellow White Sox watch Abreu in action, they see a diligent, focused, incredibly disciplined hitter. He's similar in that respect to Stanton, who concentrates more on hitting the ball to the opposite field than unleashing his inner Jose Canseco in batting practice and feeding the "wow" factor.
"For me, it's just a professional batting practice," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "He's not trying to overwhelm you with hitting homers on every pitch. He moves it around. He's always hitting it on the barrel. He's just very consistent about what he does and understanding what it takes. He's not out there to showcase anything. He's just preparing to be as good as he can be."
Although countrymen Puig and Cespedes helped pave the way for Abreu's big payday with their splashy debuts, Abreu brought some big-time credentials from Cuba. He flirted with two Triple Crowns while posting cartoonish numbers in Cuba's Serie Nacional, and hit .360 with three homers and nine RBIs in six games during the World Baseball Classic last March. When Abreu scheduled a workout for teams in the Dominican Republic in September, it was considered must-see viewing in MLB front offices.
Nevertheless, some scouts who watched Abreu in international tournaments slotted him in as more of a .260, 25-30 homer type than a world-beating slugger. The skeptical take: He's a "slider speed bat" guy who will wear out back-of-the-rotation starters, but will have trouble against the Max Scherzers and Justin Verlanders of the world.
Those assessments elicit a chuckle from Ventura, for obvious reasons. Who doesn't have trouble with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander?
"You hear stuff like, 'You can jam him,'" Ventura said. "Well, I hope so. Usually the really good hitters get jammed, because they're staying through the ball and not flying open."
If Abreu struggles with the adjustment to the big leagues, it won't be for lack of preparation. The consensus in camp is that he has spent more time in the cage than any hitter on the Chicago roster this spring. Abreu arrives early in the morning, and lingers after everyone is gone to either reinforce good habits or iron out the kinks when his swing doesn't feel right. Amid the sweat and the calluses, he finds comfort in his routine.
"I'm sure there's some new, fun stuff going on for him right now," Chicago second baseman Gordon Beckham said. "But from the outside looking in, it looks like he has the weight of world on his shoulders because of the contract. You've got to like what you're seeing just with the way he's working. It earns him immediate respect with people who've been around, and kind of validates what the White Sox saw in him when they signed him."
A comfortable fit
Humble is good. On the opposite side of the Glendale complex the Dodgers have a major lightning rod in Puig, who has attracted attention for hitting long home runs, making spectacular catches, collecting speeding tickets, overthrowing cutoff men, showing up overweight and generally creating the impression that he's on his own program.
Abreu, in contrast, is blending seamlessly into the White Sox clubhouse dynamic. It helps that Viciedo, shortstop Alexei Ramirez and Rule 5 pick Adrian Nieto are all Cuba natives and able to hold his hand through the transition process. But even the Chicago players who will be slower to get to know Abreu because of the language barrier see a constant smile and a dedication that bridges backgrounds and cultures.
Before a recent workout in Glendale, Abreu sat in a conference room and shared some thoughts on the transition from Cuba with the help of White Sox coach and interpreter Lino Diaz.
His biggest goal, other than producing on the field and helping the White Sox win games, is learning to speak English. When prompted to share a few words in his repertoire, Abreu mentions "money" and "I got it." While that leaves him in great shape for popups, he's intent on expanding his vocabulary very quickly.
“"It's got to come little by little," Abreu said, "but my goal is to be able to speak the language and communicate as soon as possible."
From the outside looking in, it looks like he has the weight of world on his shoulders because of the contract. You've got to like what you're seeing just with the way he's working. It earns him immediate respect with people who've been around, and kind of validates what the White Sox saw in him when they signed him.” -- Gordon Beckham, White Sox
second baseman, on Abreu
During his brief time in the U.S., Abreu has developed a fondness for steak and lemonade. He has been so immersed in baseball, he has yet to sample the local restaurant scene in the Phoenix suburbs. But from the time he has spent in Chicago, he has staked out Las Brazas, a Brazilian steakhouse, as his personal favorite.
His new teammates already have witnessed his genuineness between the lines. When the White Sox held their first full-squad workout Sunday, Adam Dunn noticed Abreu getting frustrated during infield practice. Much of the routine was new to him, and he simply wasn't prepared for what to do or where to be around the first-base bag. That clearly bothered him.
"That's the kind of kid he is," Dunn said. "He wants everything to be perfect."
The White Sox recently saw that same sincerity on display on a personal scale. In Cuba, Abreu befriended a disabled youth who attended the Cienfuegos team's games. History repeated itself during the White Sox's fan-fest in January, when a developmentally challenged boy sat in the front row watching Abreu and some of the team's Latin players speak. When the event finished, Abreu came down from the podium and spoke softly to the boy while gently stroking his hand. It was a poignant gesture that gave fans a window into what makes Abreu tick.
Abreu's wife, Yusmary, made the trip to America with him, and other family members are on their way. His mother, father, sister and brother-in-law all have left Cuba and are currently in Haiti awaiting final clearance to come to the States.
Abreu speaks of his mother, Daisy Correa Diaz, with a sense of love and reverence. He wore No. 14 and 23 as a professional in Cuba before she told him he needed to switch to something more novel to give him an identity. So when he slips on a White Sox jersey with No. 79 on the back, he thinks of her. Soon enough, the rest of his family will arrive in Chicago and have a chance to take part in his journey. He'll have a lot of interesting stories to share.
Although Abreu has been anointed to replace Paul Konerko and Dunn as Chicago's designated middle-of-the-order presence, he's respectful of what they have achieved in the majors and appreciative of the opportunity to be their teammate.
"It is a dream to be able to spend some time next to these players who have been able to accomplish so much in baseball," Abreu said. "I'm so thankful they've put those guys next to me. The reality hasn't started yet. The reality comes once we start playing."
If time, sweat and long hours in the batting cage can lay the groundwork for success, Jose Abreu will be more than ready.
Which teams will have a good year? Which teams will surprise? The questions are what make spring training so great, so fascinating. They are what define this time of year, along with warm weather, hope and the belief that March 29 will be the last useless evening that we'll have to spend.
The world champion Red Sox mostly will be without their beards this spring, but they will have a new catcher (A.J. Pierzynski), a new shortstop (Xander Bogaerts) and several candidates to be their new center fielder, including Grady Sizemore, who hasn't taken an at-bat in the big leagues since 2011. The Rays will have David Price, who hasn't been traded and now, it appears, might not be traded this season. The Orioles might start the season without Manny Machado, who is coming back from a serious knee injury. The Blue Jays will open spring training without the hype of last spring, which is good for them.
The Tigers, under new manager Brad Ausmus, will open the spring with a different infield from the one that took the field last spring, including Ian Kinsler at second base and rookie Nick Castellanos at third. Even more important, they have a real closer this spring in Joe Nathan. The Indians have a new closer, John Axford, as well. The Royals have a new leadoff batter (Norichika Aoki) and second baseman (Omar Infante). Meanwhile, the White Sox have a new first baseman (Cuban Jose Abreu) and the Twins' new first baseman is their old catcher, Joe Mauer.
The A's added to their bullpen, acquiring closer Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson and Eric O'Flaherty, and welcomed Scott Kazmir to their rotation. The Rangers gave Prince Fielder a fresh start at first base, found a position (second base) for Jurickson Profar and showed Shin-Soo Choo what a great country this is, especially when you reach free agency. Great country? The Mariners gave Robinson Cano $240 million, but is there protection around him in that lineup? The Angels made significant changes, none of which will really matter if Albert Pujols isn't healthy enough to play first base and produce something close to the Pujols of St. Louis. And if the Astros lose 128 games (they are not nearly that bad), they'll tie the Mets (1962-65) for the most losses ever during any four-year period in history.
The Braves have a new catcher in Evan Gattis, and they'll have to figure out how to get the batting averages of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla back over .200. The Nationals, under rookie manager Matt Williams, need a healthy Bryce Harper (knee) if they're going to win the NL East; in mid-January, he sprinted for the first time without pain. We know the Phillies are in Clearwater, but nothing else about them is clear. The Mets have Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon, but not having Matt Harvey for perhaps the entire season will be a bummer. The Marlins still have Giancarlo Stanton. How long before that situation changes?
The Cardinals have almost an entirely new infield, a new center fielder (Peter Bourjos) and maybe a new right fielder if rookie Oscar Taveras is healthy and productive. The Pirates have hope again following a playoff appearance in 2013, and with Gerrit Cole for a full season. The Reds have a new manager in Bryan Price; now they need to find a center fielder to replace Shin-Soo Choo: Is this the spring that Billy Hamilton steals a job? The Brewers have a new right fielder in Ryan Braun; no questions about Biogeneis will be taken, however. The Cubs have a new spring training facility and a new manager, Rick Renteria.
There will be lots of stories, questions and sunshine this spring. It is the best time of year. It is a time for optimism: No one has lost a game, the rookies all have promise and the veterans believe it will be their best year. It is baseball in its purest form, a time for wind sprints, fundamentals, split-squad games on a back field where only the scouts are watching. Millionaire players are humanized and humbled in spring training. They are not receiving enormous paychecks every two weeks, and they're getting the same meal money as the rookie in his first big league camp. No one is exempt from the three-hour bus rides, playing on fields that aren't manicured to major league standards, and facing anonymous Class A pitchers who throw really hard, but have no idea where the ball is going. It is the one time of year that Justin Verlander and a 20-year-old kid are on equal ground. It is the one time of year that a player gets on the bus in uniform, just like in high school.
Eleven years ago, Indians pitcher Brian Anderson boarded the team bus at 8 a.m. for the two-hour drive to Vero Beach, Fla., for a spring training game. Thirty minutes into the trip, Anderson realized he had forgotten his hat, his spikes and his glove back in Winter Haven.
"I was running late that morning because I knew I was going to get to hit in the game, so I was looking for the really important things: batting gloves and a bat," Anderson said. "When we got to Vero, I was in full panic mode. I borrowed a car and went to a mall, but there wasn't one glove in the whole mall, but I found some adidas spikes. On the way back to the ballpark, I saw a WalMart. I thought, 'Hey, WalMart has everything ... tires ... produce ... it must have a baseball glove.' I found one: $29.95, already broken in. It was a softball glove. A Wilson. It was awful. I borrowed someone's hat and pitched in the game. Of course, I got three comebackers to the mound, and I caught them all because my new glove was as big as a butterfly net, it made [Greg] Maddux's glove look small. That day reminded me of when I was 17 playing Legion ball. That is spring training to me."
Only in spring training could this story happen. The Twins signed infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka in the spring of 2011. He didn't speak much English, and didn't know anyone on the team. Several teammates convinced Twins outfielder Denard Span to introduce himself to Nishioka, to make him feel more a part of the team. Only they tricked Span -- they told him that Ray Chang, another infielder, was Nishioka. So Span, ever respectful, approached Chang, bowed gracefully, introduced himself, and asked him if he spoke English.
"Sure I do," Chang said. "I'm from Kansas City!"
The whole team howled.
Only in spring training would pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, now with the Royals, ride his bike to work. "It was only five miles," he said of his daily ride two springs ago to the Rockies' facility. Then-teammate Michael Cuddyer said of Guthrie, laughing, "He once pitched in a game in Scottsdale, then got on his bike -- still in full uniform, with his glove on the handlebars -- and rode back to our facility. It was like a scene from 'The Sandlot.'"
Only in spring training would then-Padres pitcher Chris Young and Will Venable pick teams for a free throw shooting tournament because both guys played basketball at Princeton. "That's as nervous as I've ever been for an athletic competition," Young said with a smile, "because I'm not a great free throw shooter, and my team was depending on me to be good." Only in spring training would the Twins hold a bowling tournament behind the KFC in Fort Myers and, said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, "Joe Mauer would be high-fiving his teammates, guys he's never met in his life, after they rolled a strike." Only in spring training could Jeff Stone get thrown out at all four bases in one game, and only one of them was a forceout (think about that). Only in spring training could Rockies pitcher David Lee, in an emergency, drive the team bus on a night trip, then earn the nickname "Diesel" when he stopped the bus and announced, "We've got to get some diesel!"
Only in spring training is time taken to get in baseball shape. "We're always inventing drills and conditioning programs in spring training," said Rich Donnelly, now the manager of the Mariners' Triple-A team. "Years ago, we'd do 10 jumping jacks, touch our toes twice, then play. Today, these strength and conditioning coaches are always coming up with new stuff: rubber bands, parachutes, cones. I just can't imagine Ted Williams going to spring training and running with a parachute on his back, or Babe Ruth jumping over a bunch of cones."
It is a time for the fans, especially kids. Families take vacations to spring training. Getting a player's autograph is easier because everything and everyone is more relaxed than during the regular season. Well, except for when the Red Sox and Yankees played for the first time in spring training 2004, their first meeting since Aaron Boone's home run had sent the Yankees to the World Series, and sent the Red Sox home. Tickets were scalped for $500 for an exhibition game! Before the game, there was a fight in the parking lot at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers between a Yankees fan and a Red Sox fan ... both fans were women!
It's spring training. Finally. We can't wait.
Well, it's time for more bold predictions, and I'm beginning with spring training. Let's take a look at my 10 bold predictions for 2014 spring training. (Don't worry, I'll make more bold predictions for the regular season.)
1. Matt Kemp doesn't play in a single major league spring training game.
Kemp is still recovering from microfracture surgery on his left talus bone (a major weight-bearing bone in his ankle), and I think he will begin the season on the disabled list.
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Well, of course Sale is going to start on Opening Day. That's what you do when a guy just won 17 games for you, a year good enough to finish sixth in the American League Cy Young voting. That isn't a decision, that's belatedly announcing the obvious.
A's manager Bob Melvin was similarly sanguine about Parker after his young hurler got knocked around for seven runs in three-plus innings.
“It certainly was as bad as the numbers would have indicated," Melvin said. "I think that we had some defensive issues that added to that. That's the difficult thing about spring; for some guys numbers do play out, for some they don't. Based on what he accomplished last year, he's not going to be evaluated on numbers."
Generally, performance in spring training isn't usually going to determine who wins a job, a new role, or the honor of an Opening Day start. But performance is going to wind up influencing those rare instances where there are decisions left to make, decisions that weren't already made in December or January as a function of who a team has signed and why. Welcome to the A's world, where with just two weeks left, they don't know for sure who will be getting playing time at second, short and third.
As Melvin observed about sorting out his muddled infield picture, "There's a good chance it won’t play out until the very end," he said. Now that's a decision.
The A's came into camp with no established answer for who would be their starter at second or third, and with a question mark at shortstop. They got little in terms of offensive performance from those slots last year: a .671 OPS from their third basemen, .620 from their second basemen and .585 from their shortstops. Winning the AL West last year, incredible as it was, was done despite their infield's production, not because of it.
Getting Jed Lowrie from the Astros in a trade was the big step to address some part of the problem, and signing Japanese league veteran Hiroyuki Nakajima was supposed to give them a shortstop. At second base, the hope was that getting Scott Sizemore back from missing all of 2012 with an injury might give Jemile Weeks some competition at second.
Then Weeks missed almost two weeks with a bone bruise on his shoulder, while Sizemore injured his hand and has struggled with that over almost the exact same stretch. With two weeks to go, it's still an open question whether the A's have an answer at second base, or perhaps any of the three positions.
Because of Lowrie's positional flexibility, you could see this as a case where several players are in direct competition for playing time and roster spots, albeit not for the exact same job. It isn't like Melvin has any slam-dunk obvious choices. It's a situation where a dark-horse candidate can enter the race, expanding rather than narrowing his options. Focusing on Sunday's game, Melvin said, "Eric Sogard will start at second today, and some other guys are doing well, making it tougher to actually narrow it down. Sogard has sneaky pop at times, depending on the ballpark. We've seen him hit a few home runs in the last couple of years, but he's more a gap-to-gap guy, and does get the head of the bat out a little down the line for some doubles."
So things are already getting interesting. Unfortunately, Lowrie can't play everywhere at once simultaneously -- he can only plug one hole at a time (assuming he's healthy). And that could be an even bigger problem because on defense Nakajima is far from a sure thing at shortstop, which might force Lowrie into some time there.
The nicest thing you could say for Nakajima on Saturday is that he followed up a first-inning error with doing a good job on an inning-ending double play, taking the feed from Sizemore with the bases loaded to get Parker out of the inning. Nakajima also blew the tag on a sacrifice bunt in the second, although a sailing throw from catcher Derek Norris didn't help (Norris got the error).
Melvin came to his likely starting shortstop's defense, but he has to -- it’s his job. Melvin observed, "It's been a tough time for him. Whether it's the culture shock, being with a new team, playing in a new league, all these things play into it. Each guy takes that at his own speed. There's something to be said about getting acclimated, and maybe he's not all the way there yet, getting comfortable out on the field."
Questions about Nakajima's defense are unavoidable considering that all of the other, more highly regarded defenders at short who have come over from Japan have failed. Add in that Nakajima hasn't looked good at the plate in Cactus League action, and the assumption that he was going to be their regular shortstop might be revisited by the end of the month.
Melvin focused on the positives about Nakajima's resilience as he tries to adapt, saying "He's very personable, he's always in a good mood. He works very hard, but I think to an extent, he still has to kind of find his way and get comfortable, both offensively and defensively."
Keeping things upbeat makes sense, but there again, that's Melvin’s job. But in another couple weeks, he'll have to make a series of tough overlapping decisions. While obvious calls like Sale getting tabbed for an Opening Day assignment get headlines. Two weeks of performance might seem an irrational basis to make a decision when teams know everything there is to know about their players' histories, but that's what the A's have left to work with.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
"If he did, it must have been in his earlobes," Dunn said.
That hummingbird metabolism notwithstanding, Sale emerged as a pitching heavyweight last season. He went 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA, made the American League All-Star team and stayed reasonably effective to the end. He posted a 7-6 record with a 4.03 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 89 1/3 innings after the break -- not bad considering he had pitched exclusively out of the bullpen and thrown a total of 71 innings the previous season.
By all accounts, Sale is ready to be the front man for a Chicago rotation that includes Peavy, John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Jose Quintana.
Sale did just fine in his Cactus League debut Friday, with 2 1/3 scoreless innings and 48 pitches against Cleveland. He expects to "tweak" a few things over the next month in Arizona, but plans to stick with the fastball-slider-changeup repertoire that's made him such a handful against major league hitters. If his 2012 breakthrough taught him anything, it’s the importance of grinding it out during the inevitable fatigue and dead-arm phases that a 162-game season brings.
The expectations are higher this year, so Sale understands the need to keep his priorities in order. That helps explain his decision to turn down an opportunity to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
"I would have loved to do it," Sale said. "It's an honor to put those colors on and play for your country. At the same time, after the workload I went through last year, I didn't think it was going to benefit myself or my team.
"I want to put everything I have into this right here. A few years down the road, when I get asked again, it might be a different story. It was a great opportunity, just the wrong timing for me."
There is also something to be said for spring training camaraderie. Sale drove from White Sox camp in Glendale, Ariz., to the game in Goodyear with Dunn. Naturally, the subject of fast food came up in conversation.
Dunn, who is listed at 6-6, 285, is both galled and mystified that Sale has had to work so hard to pack 180 pounds on his 6-6 frame.
"He rode me over here and he was like, 'Are we going to stop at McDonald's or Burger King or something?'" Dunn said. "I was like, 'Dude, no. All you have to do is talk about it and I gain seven pounds.'"