With first baseman Jose Abreu busting out big in the early going, you can’t help but get a little more excited about the White Sox than you might have been before the season. If you’re in Chicago, you could already anticipate that attendance was going to continue to plummet after last year’s 99-loss debacle, because the White Sox weren’t just bad last year -- worse yet, they were boring.
And sure enough, the Sox are already drawing more than 2,400 fewer people per game and have dropped to 14th in the league in attendance, foreshadowing what might be an eighth straight season of declining attendance. Even accepting it’s been a chilly spring, they’re being outdrawn by the Astros and the Rays. Something has to change that, and the hope is that Jose Abreu might be what does it.
That’s because the White Sox have been here before in terms of being in the doldrums in the turnstiles, and they’ve had a Cuban superstar ride to the rescue to shake up a moribund franchise and make it watchable. In 1951, it took the addition of Minnie Minoso, the Cuban Comet, to propel them to the franchise’s first season with more than a million people in the seats. (And guess what? As soon as they traded Minnie to the Indians in 1958, they dropped back below a million.)
It’s asking a lot of Abreu to be an instant All-Star, as well as an attendance magnet with that kind of instant impact. And who can match the reliably upbeat Minoso -- still active with the White Sox’s community relations department at a spry 88 -- in terms of charming people back into the stands. But with Abreu, if you look at the swing, the power, the early results and even something as dramatic as Friday’s night’s decisive grand slam, it’s hard not to have that kind of optimism when it comes to White Sox watchability in the summer to come. Abreu is already tied for the league lead in home runs, and that’s before the weather warms up in Chicago and the Cell becomes the homer haven Sox fans know and love.
Abreu might be inheriting the Minoso mantle in terms of the franchise’s historic good vibe when it comes to adding Cuban talent, but perhaps more significantly he represents the best news yet in an organizational adaptive strategy to compensate for its other failures on the player development front. One of the reliable facts about the White Sox as an organization over more than the decade is that they rarely rank well when it comes to farm system assessments, but it gets worse when you look at how they’ve done drafting and developing position players. Among White Sox position players still with the team, Gordon Beckham leads with 5.4 career WAR generated across six different seasons -- essentially, a guy a nose above replacement level is the best they have to show from the past 10 drafts.
Dial it back to White Sox drafts since they selected their last homegrown All-Star, center fielder Chris Young, in the 16th round of the 2001 draft, and the past 13 White Sox drafts have generated a total of 30.3 WAR among position players. Young is responsible for almost half of that (14.7 WAR), followed by platoon outfielder Ryan Sweeney (6.5), and then Beckham. Other “success” stories include infielder Chris Getz (1.8 WAR), catcher Chris Stewart (2.3) and outfield reserve Jeremy Reed (2.0). You will not find them on the cover of anybody’s media guide.
As much as the draft hasn’t been a strong point for the Sox, signing Latin talent generally also hasn’t been an area in which they’ve been able to make up for it. The Sox haven’t been able to go toe-to-toe with organizations who have invested heavily in getting talent out of the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.
They’ve worked around these handicaps in a couple ways, providing player procurement instead of spending on player development. First, they’ve traded for other people’s prospects, with Tyler Flowers, Adam Eaton, Conor Gillaspie and Avisail Garcia being the current best examples (even with Garcia out for the season). But the real winner for the White Sox has been throwing money at quality Cuban talent, opening the checkbook to paper over their other failures.
It started with Alexei Ramirez, the Cuban Missile. He was almost instantly a bargain after inking his four-year, $4.75 million deal, because Ramirez was big league-ready at an up-the-middle position as soon as they signed him in January 2008. As soon as Ramirez reached an arbitration-related opt-out of the original deal, he and the Sox hammered out a four-year extension for $32.5 million with a 2016 option. If you focus on what he doesn’t do (walk), you risk overlooking what he does: stay healthy, play a good short, steal bases and deliver more power than your average shortstop (which matters in a park that rewards well-lofted fly balls). If they don’t pick up the option, they’ll have gotten nine years out of Ramirez for about $4.3 million per year, where the current average payday for shortstops is $4.2 million per annum.
Dayan Viciedo inked a big league deal with the Sox just 11 months later in December 2008, but as a 19-year-old, he took a couple years in the minors to adapt to playing stateside as well as develop. Admittedly, the Sox haven’t gotten the same return on investment, having paid just under $3 million per year over his six seasons in the organization (including his $4 million signing bonus), but that’s what you get when you take a chance on young talent. However, even though it seems as if he’s been around forever, he has just turned 25, and an age-25 season is right around where a player’s normal peak production should begin. Even before Garcia’s injury, 2014 seemed like it was going to be a make-or-break season for Viciedo, who has shown better plate coverage this year, while walking more and striking out less. If he keeps that up, we’re back to talking about a guy good for 25 to 30 homers per year. The fact that the White Sox have control of him through 2017 could make him a long-term investment that will pay off.
Add in a historic association with Minoso and the White Sox’s success in salvaging Jose Contreras’ career in the Aughties, and there’s probably no more logical place for Abreu to have landed than Chicago. Having already employed the Cuban Comet and Cuban Missile, we’ll have to see what nickname gets awarded to Abreu with the White Sox. If he keeps crushing nine homers a month, that -- like the attendance problem -- might just take care of itself.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.