José Abreu surely knew he was gone on the final day of the 2022 season when he opted to sit and watch the last game of his Chicago White Sox career from the dugout.
Abreu issued a statement through White Sox public relations that morning, explaining he asked interim manager Miguel Cairo for the day off “to enjoy this game with him and have the manager’s perspective.” He then sat at the opposite end of the dugout from Cairo during a 10-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins.
Abreu didn’t want a long goodbye, so he left without any send-off from the Sox organization or the team’s fans. No standing ovations. Not even so much as a wave. What he was thinking that day was anyone’s guess, and he didn’t speak afterward.
The low-key departure was a little odd for a player of Abreu’s stature on the South Side. And the decision to avoid unwanted attention was made even more glaring by the nonstop goodbyes Willson Contreras received in his final three months as a Chicago Cub.
But that truly was the end, as we learned Monday.
Sources confirmed to the Tribune a USA Today report that Abreu agreed to a three-year deal with the World Series champion Houston Astros, which was neither surprising nor worthy of teeth-gnashing from upset Sox fans.
Everyone seemed to agree it was time to go, except perhaps for Abreu. He soon will find there’s life outside the South Side and no doubt will get his “welcome back” salute next year at Sox Park.
General manager Rick Hahn, who drafted Andrew Vaughn in 2019 to eventually take Abreu’s place, had no choice but to move on from the veteran with Vaughn so miscast in the outfield. Another year of watching Vaughn attempt to play left or right field would’ve been a disaster for a team that desperately needs to improve defensively to become a legitimate contender.
Vaughn remains an unproven hitter in spite of what was considered a breakthrough season. After a hot first half in which he hit .301 with an .819 OPS, he dropped to .234 in the second half with a .666 OPS. If that’s what the Sox get in 2023, they’re in trouble. Abreu posted an .860 OPS over nine seasons. Those are big shoes to fill.
The designated hitter spot also wasn’t suited for Abreu, who prefers to be in the field and started only 199 games at DH, about 22 per season. Even that was too many for him, and three Sox managers — Robin Ventura, Rick Renteria and Tony La Russa — appeased Abreu by refusing to make him even a part-time DH.
Of course the Sox still have a surplus of DH types, including Eloy Jiménez, Yasmani Grandal and Gavin Sheets, so even if Abreu had been ready for such a transition, there were too many cooks in the kitchen to accommodate another.
The loss of Abreu, the Sox’s most consistent hitter over the last decade, will be felt in the clubhouse, especially in the corner where he was a father figure to Jimenez, Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert. But everyone has to leave the nest at some point, and all three have been around long enough to get by without Abreu. Maybe they could use some growing up.
In a perfect world, Abreu probably would’ve been on the Sox for life, waiting for his No. 79 jersey to be retired on his day. He certainly talked like a man who wanted to stay forever.
Even though he went through the agony of the Sox rebuild, Abreu said before his free-agent season in 2019 that he would do anything possible to re-sign.
“If I was the owner, I’d sign myself,” he said.
Despite finishing second in the majors that year with 123 RBIs, he negotiated exclusively with the Sox, re-signing for a team-friendly three-year, $50 million deal.
“I don’t care about money,” he told me in English during spring training 2020. It was a family decision, he added.
“We feel comfortable in Chicago,” he said, reverting to Spanish. “For us, it didn’t make sense to look around to other places.”
Abreu won the American League MVP award that year in the pandemic-shortened season, helping lead the Sox to their first postseason appearance in 12 years. He also was a voice of reason in the clubhouse, admitting the players “relaxed a little bit” and got “caught in the moment” after clinching a postseason spot. The Sox fell from the top AL seed to No. 7 in the expanded playoffs, and after they lost to the Oakland Athletics in the first round, Renteria was fired.
Abreu turns 36 in January, though many have speculated he’s older. Either way, a three-year deal could be risky for the Astros. Abreu’s power was down last season, when he hit only 15 home runs. But his exit velocity remained high, suggesting he isn’t close to losing it, as many sluggers do in their late 30s.
Hitting in the middle of a loaded Astros lineup and playing for a players’ manager in Dusty Baker, he should blend in well in his new home, making things more difficult for the Sox.
But life goes on. Hahn, who began the offseason by signing underrated free-agent starter Mike Clevinger to fill a gap in the rotation, has much more work to do to get Sox fans excited about a rebound in 2023. New manager Pedro Grifol won’t sell tickets, and with Abreu gone the only real drawing card is shortstop Tim Anderson.
The winter meetings, which begin Monday in San Diego, will be important for Hahn, especially after what the fan base went through this year. He’s walking a tightrope without a safety net — no room for missteps.
Hahn doesn’t have to “win” the meetings, but he has to win back Sox fans. Trusting the process won’t be enough this time.