By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) As romantic as the story of a homegrown prospect may be, there’s something to be said for the explosive arrival of something completely foreign.
Jose Abreu is to be watched, at the very least. And for a White Sox team that spent all of last season trying to tell us to find something better to do than pay any attention to their stumbling stupidity, that’s a big step. The powerfully built Cuban import is right now an intriguing enough blend of obvious skill and remaining mystery to merit attention, which for sensible Sox fans turned off by the unfolding insult of 2013 is something unfamiliar.
The slugger-out-of-nowhere story makes it inherently more exciting than the long-awaited arrival of a ballyhooed draft pick at the end of his minor league gestation. Abreu is more a plot twist, as if conceived by writers.
Instead of following him season by season as he climbed the organizational ladder, it all happened in a relative moment: awareness of his MLB eligibility, a mostly secretive recruitment process, a $68-million deal and a press conference, spring training and then a .921 OPS and 11 RBIs after eight games.
We went from watching a few YouTube videos to it being real, and pretty good, which is cool.
Analysts of all kinds love stuff like this, too, because of the instant gratification that big-league immediacy provides. Fangraphs.com devoted a lengthy piece to him on Monday, trying to determine what his first week of baseball meant. Jeff Sullivan’s careful breakdown of his early pitch selection and approach yielded few convincing conclusions, but it felt significant even for the fact that he’s worthy of such scrutiny.
“Abreu is more of an unknown,” Sullivan wrote, “no matter how much the White Sox committed to him. With a lot of inexperienced players, you’re looking for expectations to be confirmed. With Abreu, you’re looking for expectations to be set. This is the discovery period – we’re learning the things we’re supposed to know about Jose Abreu down the road.”
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire saw enough by the season’s second game to intentionally walk Abreu twice in front of Adam Dunn, making him the first rookie to receive such respect so early since the tracking of the statistic began in 1955. “I’m glad I won’t see him for a while,” Gardenhire said. “The kid can really hit. We knew that coming in. We heard he was a really strong young man, and that’s why we were pitching around him. No disrespect to Mr. Dunn.”
Abreu’s two home runs in Colorado yesterday brought him some national attention late last night and into this morning, with Gabe Kapler of Fox Sports 1 hash-tagging Abreu on Twitter, linking to the Fangraphs piece. News also leaked yesterday to card collectors that Abreu would be a featured special-edition autograph for Topps in 2014, alongside one commemorating Hank Aaron’s 715th home run.
These could be heady times for a rookie, but Abreu is 27, well conditioned by high-level international play and insulated from overexposure by the language barrier. Yasiel Puig he is not, already seeming far more mature than his fellow countryman, beyond the four-year age difference.
Any outsized expectations of stardom will belong more to White Sox fans starved from last year’s exile in the baseball desert, because Abreu and even a passably watchable team represent something of an oasis. Some early, irrational exuberance can be forgiven easily.
It’s probable that the fun will give way to reality, and the new toy will grow less shiny and entertaining as the White Sox settle into what they will be this year. But that’s no reason to tell anyone not to enjoy or to be open-minded to what Abreu may represent for a franchise looking forward under the impressive new leadership of general manager Rick Hahn.
Just that it’s different, now, is enough. If Abreu’s bat fulfills the promise it has already teased, it may be eventually be something more than that.