abreu’s big hurt lingers
slugger still stung about leaving sox, but he found ‘real family’ with astros
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — What will Jose Abreu miss about his life in Chicago? The question appeared to knock the wind right out of him in a hallway outside the Astros’ spring-training clubhouse. He looked plaintively at both a reporter and the translator who assists him with interviews in English, shook his head from side to side and, for several seconds, said nothing. Emotion flooded across the 36-year-old slugger’s face.
“Remembering everything is hard,” the translator said, buying Abreu some time.
Finally, Abreu spoke in English.
“It hurts,” is all he said, and it showed.
Then he disappeared through the clubhouse door and back into his new, orange-and-blue reality.
Two days before hitting his first spring home run with baseball’s defending champions — a 437-foot bomb to left off the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright — Abreu seemed happy enough in his new surroundings. He certainly has upgraded teams, leaving the White Sox behind after nine seasons and zero playoff series wins.
Or did the Sox leave him behind?
The Astros were thrilled to bring in Abreu — a former MVP admired throughout the sport for his diligent work ethic, his mentorship of younger players and, of course, his elite run production — on a three-year, $58.5 million free-agent deal. He will start at first base for baseball’s kingpins, who have taken part in seven of the last eight postseasons, advancing to four World Series and winning two of them.
But the Sox chose not to stay in the Abreu business, opting to clear a path at first base for 24-year-old Andrew Vaughn, a promising hitter. The Sox made Abreu an offer for 2023, he says, but the writing was on the wall. He felt disrespected. “Sometimes,” he said, “when you’re at a place where maybe you’re not being respected to the point where you think you should be, you just have to go somewhere else.”
It’s hard to imagine a better landing spot than the Astros, who are the betting favorites to be the last team standing in early November. Abreu arrived here several weeks before the opening of camp and quickly got his hooks into a few younger teammates, one of them shortstop Jeremy Pena, the reigning World Series MVP, with whom he worked out daily.
“Great dude, that’s all I can say,” Pena said. “He’s such a hard worker, the first one to come in and the last one to leave. You can just feel it from him, feel the way he’s leading by example. I think we’re clearly very lucky to have him on this team.”
As lineups and locker mates go, Abreu is part of a murderer’s row, with fellow former American League MVP Jose Altuve in the stall to the right of his, powerhouse Yordan Alvarez on the left and fellow stars Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker right in the vicinity. They’re all huge “Pito” fans already.
“This is an RBI machine we’re talking about,” Altuve said. “This is another great hitter in this lineup. He’s a leader, a great guy, a great hitter, a great player. I mean, come on, right?”
Abreu replaces longtime Astros first baseman Yuri Gurriel, who only once, in 2019, put up offensive numbers that approximated Abreu’s career season averages. There’s little question the champs got better.
It was initially reported that Abreu would bat sixth in the order, but manager Dusty Baker intends to move him around as needed to maximize the run-producing potential of a player whose 863 RBI since the start of the 2014 season are second-most in baseball. The only player ahead of him is the Cardinals’ Nolan Arenado, who had his biggest RBI seasons in hitter-friendly Colorado. And speaking of friendly, who wants to bet against Abreu topping the 100-RBI mark while aiming for the Crawford Boxes in left field at Minute Maid Park?
“What we need from him is just to be Abreu,” manager Dusty Baker said. “That’s why we got him. This guy is one of the premier run producers in baseball.
“I think driving in runs is part of the game that they don’t talk about much anymore. They talk about onbase percentage, talk about this, talk about that, but you’ve got to have somebody to drive them in.”
The Astros have communicated clearly with Abreu about specific areas in which they’d like to see improvement, one of them being avoiding hitting the ball on the ground in double-play situations. Abreu is pushing himself hard defensively on a team that’s famously good in the field — or, as Abreu put it, “exquisite.”
The communication thing is a live-wire subject because the 2022 Sox were deficient enough in that department — not just from the front office or manager Tony La Russa on down, but also between the players in the clubhouse — that more than one player has whispered about it since. Abreu, who had as much credibility as anyone on that team, now is one of them. “I think sometimes talking about the past can bring a lot of animosity,” he said, “but I think the best way I can put it is just that we weren’t a real family. And I’m hoping maybe [the Sox] can get to a situation where a lot of the guys there that do deserve to be in a good situation, they can have it there and be able to win.
But I don’t really have too much more to say about that.”
And how are things on the Astros’ side in this regard?
“These guys here, they’re a real family,” he said. “Obviously, I can see why the Astros organization has had as much success as they’ve had the last couple of years.”
Abreu has been communicating with certain ex-teammates on a regular basis, still feeling “part of them” and “trying to get them to be better every single day.”
Asked to forecast the biggest Sox breakout in 2023, he said, “I’ll always put my money on Luis Robert. But Eloy Jimenez is another guy who has a ton of talent, he just needs to stay healthy. [Yoan] Moncada, we all know his potential and the things he can do. Andrew Vaughn is another guy with a lot of potential.”
He wishes all of them well and says he isn’t bitter toward the Sox. But he is stung. He absolutely wanted to finish his career on the South Side. More than anything, he wanted to win a World Series there.
“It was my fervent hope that Jose would never wear another uniform, as I told him many times through the years,” Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said in an official statement after Abreu and the team split apart. “Unfortunately, hope is not always translated into reality.”
Hope — instead of actions — didn’t get the job done.
“It’s definitely all a little strange,” Abreu said. “But I’m OK. I’m good. I’m working with the champs. It’s a great opportunity.”
And he earned it.