Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox had a hugely succesful 2014 season. After the Cuban-born slugger signed his six-year $68m contract last offseason, many doubters wondered if he could provide enough value to justify the deal. His ability to translate to MLB was questioned and pondered by baseball pundits.
What did Abreu do in 2014? He won American League Rookie of the Year honours by batting .317, crushing 36 home runs and knocking in 107 RBIs. His slugging percentage was .581 in a year that showcased 73 extra base hits. He went from an overpaid unknown to a powerful star with a bargain contract. Keep in mind that Abreu accomplished these feats on a 73 win team. With all this accounted for, can Jose Abreu be the 2015 AL MVP after finishing fourth last year?
In any sport, especially baseball, fans often theorise that impressive rookies will struggle to replicate their initial success: the Sophomore Slump. There’s good reason to believe that this phenomenon simply doesn’t exist for anyone. In the case of Jose Abreu, it seems even less likely.
Hardly your typical rookie, Abreu defected from Cuba in August of 2013 at the age of 26. As such, he was eligible to sign with MLB teams as a free agent and so agreed to his deal with the Southsiders. This wasn’t a shot in the dark; eighteen months before he defected, Jonah Keri profiled Abreu and staked his claim that the slugger might even be the best hitter in the world. By the next August, he had become a highly coveted free agent. Initially only willing to pledge $40m, Ken Williams convinced White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf that the Cuban power hitter was a necessity.
With respected analysts gushing over him and cautious executives going back to their checkbooks, Jose Abreu entered 2014 as one of the league’s most talked about rookies. The slugger delivered in impressive fashion: 10 home runs, 32 RBI, nine walks and a .617 slugging percentage in his first 29 games. Barring injury, he locked up the Rookie of the Year award in April.
An early season ankle injury couldn’t derail a brilliant rookie campaign. Abreu came into his own last summer when he crushed 16 home runs in June and July. He posted a 1.032 on base plus slugging (OPS) in June and a whopping 1.099 OPS in July. As the Sox faded down the stretch, a noticeably fatigued Abreu tailed off a bit, adding only five homers from then on.
Add it all up, and Jose Abreu was still one of the five or ten most valuable hitters in all of baseball. He finished sixth in MLB in offensive wins above replacement (WAR) and batting average; he tied with Mike Trout for fourth in home runs and he finished fifth in RBI. His OBP was tenth in MLB, showing his ability to do more than just crush home runs. Most impressively, he finished first in slugging percentage, second in OPS and first in Adjusted OPS+ (which takes ballpark factors into consideration). In both classic categories and advanced metrics, Abreu rated as one of the most versatile and valuable hitters in the league.
In the offseason, all the White Sox did was add quality hitters to slot around their slugger. Rick Hahn got the winter started early, grabbing Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera to bolster last season’s poor lineup. 23-year-old Avisail Garcia figures to be healthy for his first full season as well. Abreu will have far more lineup protection this time around, so expecting a decrease in production seems foolish. Furthermore, Abreu has destroyed spring training pitching. The first baseman has impressed teammates and coaches alike since he first joined the club, continually striving to somehow get even better.
Its not just on offence where the White Sox have added talent. They also acquired Jeff Samardzija and David Robertson. They could well be a contender. Behind Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Samardzija, Vhicago has a formidable rotation. With Abreu and the new acquisitions, it’s offence might be one of the most elite groups in the AL. Chicago is drastically improved and Abreu’s bat will be swinging with a more meaningful force.
Consider that his 2014 WAR of 5.3 was in spite of the limited talent surrounding him. This WAR number is also noteworthy when understanding Abreu’s largely unimpressive defensive capabilities at first base.
Most Rookie of the Year winners are upcoming hitting prospects who delivered upon arriving to the big league club, or pitchers embarking on hopefully long carriers in the rotation. At age 27 last season, Abreu entered the league at an age many consider to the prime of a hitter’s career. While many teams have to nurture their talented second year players to continue developing their skills, the White Sox have the rare star smack in the middle of his prime. At age 28 and with an elite year under his belt, Abreu should be primed for a serious run at the MVP.
Mike Trout isn’t going anywhere. Miguel Cabrera is still one of the most dangerous right-handed hitters in MLB. With these beasts and many other great hitters in the AL, it win’t be easy to win the MVP. He’ll have to put up monumentally strong numbers and lead his previously irrelevant unit into the playoffs. However, he has the power to accomplish this possibility. He’s so powerful, in fact, that he might just swing his way into an MVP award.