GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The news of Jose Abreu's six-year, $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox sparked the inevitable comparisons from baseball writers and scouts looking for insights on the type of player he is and ultimately can be in the major leagues.
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.
No one really knows where Abreu will fall in that talent spectrum. But if you judge a man by his handiwork before the game begins, Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton might be the most telling comparable.
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.
"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."
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.