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Thursday, December 18, 2008
Abreu waiting for market to open

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Scott Boras isn't the only major league baseball agent with access to a research department and a neighborhood Kinko's.

As outfielder Bobby Abreu prepared to hit the open market this offseason, his agent, Peter Greenberg, thought a little promotional effort might be in order. So Greenberg's group assembled a 28-page statistical tribute filled with red and blue bar graphs and comparisons linking Abreu to the game's elite hitters.

Bobby Abreu
Bobby Abreu has driven in 100 or more runs in seven of the past eight seasons.
Sift through the charts and headlines proclaiming Abreu an "Offensive Force" and "Amazingly Consistent" and you're left with a distinct impression: For a guy who's widely regarded as a complementary-type player, Abreu sure keeps elite company.

Baseball has its franchise players and go-to guys, its middle-of-the-order "aircraft carriers," as Rockies bench coach Jim Tracy likes to call them, and Albert Pujols, who's a walking antidote to concession-stand visits.

And then there's Bobby Abreu -- serial compiler.

The blow-by-blow paints a portrait of a nice, reliable supporting player. In 13 big league seasons, Abreu has a total of two All-Star Game appearances, one Gold Glove and one Silver Slugger award to his credit. He has never finished higher than 14th in the Most Valuable Player balloting, and he has led the league in a grand total of two offensive categories -- ranking first in the NL in triples in 1999 and in doubles three years later.

Abreu's big moment on the national stage came during the Home Run Derby in Detroit in 2005, when he went deep a record 41 times to take the crown from Pudge Rodriguez. But that performance is remembered more for the mysterious power dropoff that ensued than the carnage Abreu inflicted at Comerica Park; he has averaged a mere 17 homers in the three seasons since his Derby breakout.

Still, when you stack one productive season upon another -- and yet another -- a different portrayal emerges. In any number of categories, Abreu stacks up against players who have been All-Star fixtures, made speeches in Cooperstown and been hailed among the game's all-time greats:

So in the areas of productivity, durability, consistency of performance and popularity in the clubhouse, Abreu has it covered. The only thing left on his agenda is finding a job.

In their first 13 years …

  Abreu Bernie Williams
BA .300 .305
HR 241 241
OBP .405 .390
SLG .498 .492
After paying Abreu $16 million this season in the final year of his contract, the Yankees recently passed on offering him salary arbitration -- thereby forfeiting the right to draft-pick compensation if Abreu signs with another club.

Abreu's name has since surfaced with several teams, but mainly as a Plan B or C. The Chicago Cubs, in the market for a left-handed outfield bat, have their eye on Milton Bradley -- and that might happen only if they free up room on the payroll. The Tampa Bay Rays have checked out Bradley, Jason Giambi, Pat Burrell and several other options, but they're willing to wait until they can land someone at the price they prefer.

The Angels could use an outfielder, but they might just elect to re-sign Garret Anderson or Juan Rivera. And those two guys have to stand in line while the team's pursuit of Mark Teixeira reaches a conclusion.

Abreu's alleged price tag is contributing to the inertia. The word in baseball circles is that he wants a three-year deal or two years with a vesting option for $15-16 million annually. The Phillies just signed Raul Ibanez for three years and $31.5 million, and Adam Dunn, Manny Ramirez, Ken Griffey Jr., Bradley, Burrell and Anderson are among the outfield-DH-types still available, so Abreu's salary aspirations are destined to get squeezed.

"He's still a dangerous hitter," said an American League front-office man. "I just think that as a complete player, he's starting to go backwards. He's not the outfielder he used to be. He still has a decent arm, but it's not the cannon he used to have. And he doesn't have the foot speed he used to have. He's a solid player, but not a $14-15 million a year player."

Said a National League official: "He's going to end up somewhere and be fine. But it's not going to be for anywhere near the money he's been making or he thinks he should make."

An American League scout expressed a common sentiment when he referred to Abreu as a "piece of the puzzle" rather than a player who's going to anchor a lineup. That's as much a reflection of style as substance. While Abreu consistently busts it down the line on ground balls, he plays with a fluidity that can suggest a lack of passion.

Fantasy spin

Bobby Abreu was the 11th best outfielder in 2008, according to the Player Rater as he produced solid numbers across all the major fantasy hitting categories, although his walk rate has declined in recent seasons. However, he won't be taken that high in drafts next year no matter where he lands, given that he'll be 35 and has a lack of upside. If he lands in a lineup, similar to what he had with the Yankees or Phillies, he could still be a top-75 pick and a top-25 outfielder. If he lands in a lesser lineup, Abreu could struggle to be a top-100 pick.
--James Quintong

Although the defensive metrics suggest otherwise, several scouts said Abreu looked better in right field this year after losing some weight. But he turns 35 in March, and the biggest rap against him -- an aversion to walls -- persists.

"I don't want to say he's scared of them," the AL scout said. "But his field awareness is a little shaky. He's always had that problem, and he's never gotten any better."

Greenberg, making the best of a potential drawback, is trying to use Abreu's status as the anti-Aaron Rowand as a selling point. While Abreu is skittish around fences, he also doesn't spend much time in the trainer's room.

"Maybe he's not going to run into the wall, but I think the positive outweighs the negative," Greenberg said. "Bobby's a smart player, and he wants to play 162 games a year. Just ask Terry Francona how hard it was to get him out of the lineup in Philadelphia."

Abreu's main offensive specialty -- grinding out at-bats -- also has to be seen consistently to be appreciated. Last year Abreu swung at the first pitch a major league-low 7.9 percent of the time. He also saw an average of 4.29 pitches per plate appearances, making him the third-most-selective hitter in the game behind Nick Swisher and Jack Cust.

During a series in Boston this season, Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long raved about Abreu's ability to maintain the same approach regardless of the count.

"Most guys, when they get to two strikes, they expand," Long said. "But I've seen Bobby lay off pitchers that are a ball low, a half-a-ball outside, a fraction up. It's amazing. I've never seen a hitter that good at laying off borderline pitches."

The hitters behind Abreu in the order appreciate his selectivity, because it allows them to see every weapon in a pitcher's arsenal. Opposing pitchers dislike facing him because he makes them work so hard.

The hard-core baseball types appreciate his skill set, too. They'd just like to see him cut loose and take a rip at a 3-2 fastball that's a hair outside the zone once in a while.

For all his accomplishments, Abreu will never meet the classic definition of a middle-of-the order presence or big-market star. It's not easy flying below the radar as a No. 3 hitter with the Phillies and Yankees, but he has made a career of it.

"It's not like I don't care," Abreu said in an interview this season. "Everybody has a different kind of personality, and that's my personality. Bad days. Good days. I'm the same, no matter what."

Consistency over time has helped Abreu put up some astonishing numbers. The big question now is how much teams are willing to pay for it.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.