By Kevin Dziepak-
(CBS) There are Bulls fans who are salivating at the thought of adding Carmelo Anthony, while others want nothing to do with the allegedly selfish superstar. Many Bears fans maligned the team’s front office for extending quarterback Jay Cutler’s contract. Conversely, many rejoiced. There’s even a large contingent of Blackhawks fans who wanted to see goaltender Corey Crawford shipped out of town, despite playing a pivotal role in last year’s Stanley Cup winning team and stepping up his game again during this year’s playoff run.
As one would expect from working at 670 The Score, I’m subjected to a lot of contrasting opinions on Chicago sports. There was, however, one topic most people seemed to agree on: 2014 would be another dismal year for Chicago baseball.
After a historically bad 2013, in which the Cubs and White Sox combined for a pathetic 195 losses and attendance faltered on both sides of town, there was little optimism coming into this season. While the Cubs remained mired in Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer’s “Five-Year Plan,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn was hard at work trying to refresh the suddenly stale White Sox roster.
Among the additions of exciting young players like Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia, one man stood out: $68-million dollar first baseman Jose Abreu, who was the recipient of the largest contract ever handed out to a first-year international player.
Perhaps it was because Hahn was so confident in Abreu that he didn’t mind guaranteeing nearly $70 million to a player who occupies the same position as veterans Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn. Certainly the success of fellow recently defected Cubans like Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes added to the excitement, as did Abreu’s gaudy numbers in the Cuban League. As recently as 2010-’11, he hit 33 home runs and drove in 93 runs in just 63 games.
Expectations were high, and Abreu started slow. During his first week as a major leaguer, he produced a slash of just .222/.333./.370 with no home runs. His two-home run performance in Colorado on April 8, in addition to hitting two more against Cleveland on April 10, started to draw some attention, but Abreu once again slumped for the next week and a half. During this skid, Abreu’s average dropped to just .200, and some were questioning if Abreu was just going to be a right-handed Adam Dunn. Had the league adjusted this quickly?
This doesn’t appear to be the case.
Abreu proceeded to homer five times over his next six games, including a dramatic walk-off grand slam in the bottom of the ninth against Tampa Bay on April 25. The media and fans noticed, and the fawning began. Abreu’s at-bats became must-see.
People wanted to see what he could do next. The tales of his imposing figure in the batter’s box and the special sound of the ball coming off his bat quickly spread around the baseball world. Instead of being compared to a big-money bust like Dunn, he was now being compared to Hall of Famers Frank Thomas and Jimmie Foxx.
Realistically, Abreu is probably somewhere in between. And while his historic April is still on the lips of baseball fans here in Chicago (his 10 home runs and 32 RBIs during the month are rookie records), moving forward is the most important thing for Abreu, who is on pace for 60 home runs and 172 RBIs. While he won’t reach those numbers, the rookie home run mark of 49 (set by Mark McGwire in 1987, the year Abreu was born) is certainly within reach.
One thing is certain: No matter how many home runs and RBIs Abreu ends up with at the end of the season, he’s already succeeded in making the White Sox relevant again in 2014. An early favorite for AL Rookie of the Year, with a chance at making history along the way in leading an exciting young offense, Abreu’s already guaranteed that 2014 will be much more compelling than 2013, regardless of final record.
It’s too early to say that Jose Abreu is the White Sox savior. But at least for a year, he’s saved Chicago baseball from another listless, irrelevant and tortuous season.
Kevin Dziepak is a producer at 670 The Score.