By Matt Spiegel-
(CBS) Let’s all say something out loud, together, that most sports fans in this town couldn’t have conceived of going into April.
The Chicago White Sox are fun to watch. It’s true.
This offense is explosive. The White Sox lead the American League in runs, hits, doubles and OPS. They’re second in home runs and slugging. Six players have 10 RBIs or more.
Alexei Ramirez leads the league with a .358 batting average and has 38 hits already; that’s one fewer than Paul Konerko’s team opening-month record from 2002.
Dayan Viciedo’s on-base percentage is .413, and the Sox have four players among the top 22 in that metric.
Adam Eaton sets the table as a true lead-off man, with a .373 OBP and a relentless style.
Marcus Semien has 15 runs batted in and seems to have at least one decent swing with good contact every time he’s up. He’s developing to the point that Robin Ventura needs to make sure he finds at-bats for him.
Tyler bleeping Flowers is even hitting .373.
Jerry Reinsdorf, Ken Williams and Rick Hahn prioritized a rarity: the ready-made slugger. Jose Abreu has been one of the best hitters on the planet for several years, in a league and atmosphere MLB general managers are learning you can trust.
If you dominate in Cuba and in big international competition, you’re probably the real deal.
Abreu is the real deal. In just this one month, he has already shown the ability to violently smash baseballs all over and out of the field, off a wide variety of pitches and locations. This isn’t a guy with one strength at the plate that can be avoided.
A weak spot in Abreu’s swing may soon be found, adjustments made league-wide and his flaws attacked. But he will clearly be a hitter who can destroy mistakes. And on Sunday, he adjusted to one of the game’s great starters, taking David Price out of the park in his third at-bat.
The presence of a classic slugger is transformative.
Joe Maddon knows it. The Rays manager, inarguably one of the smartest and best in the game, riffed on Abreu and the White Sox before his team lost on Monday for the third time in four games at U.S. Cellular Field.
“(It’s like) when Detroit acquires Miguel Cabrera, you know? Or Mike Trout surfaces in Anaheim,” Maddon told reporters before Monday’s game. “There’s always these prodigy kind of players out there, that when they show up it’s a combination of great work ethic, calm and an ability to go out there and perform. That’s what I see with him.
“I’ve heard about his work ethic. He’s extremely calm. Coming where he came from and what he’s probably seen before he got here, this is, you know, 30,000 people is not going to bother him. Plus, he probably doesn’t understand them anyway, so it all works in his favor. Plus, he’s really talented. He’s really talented.”
That’s high praise and absurdly elite references.
Abreu has two more games to extend his records for the most homers and RBIs in April for a rookie. And with those 31 RBIs in April (one RBI came in March), he’s just four from the most by anyone in April, ever. There are two games left for a fun little chase.
Last season’s plodding death march saw the White Sox finish dead last in runs and second-to-last in OBP and OPS in the AL. They were 11th in hits, 12th in home runs. And it all started with a woeful month.
Last April, there was still a malaise from the awful finish in 2012. Deny it if you want, insist loudly that one year doesn’t connect to the next, but you’d be wrong. The White Sox failed spectacularly in September 2012, after being good but untrusted all year long. The final month confirmed fears and expectations, and that sourness lingered.
They start slowly in April 2013 and believed in that late-season swoon version of themselves. Well, I guess we must really be terrible.
This is a whole new start.
“There’s a grittiness about them right now,” Maddon said. “I’m not saying they did this last year, but they’re not mailing anything in. Their at-bats are really sound right now. When you’re hitting Ramirez, what, sixth right now? I mean, Ramirez is hitting sixth. That says something. And Eaton gives you a component at the top of the lineup that you haven’t had in a while, with that kind of eagerness and speed. It’s different. And he’s definitely a high-energy guy. Flowers, to me, is a different player. Looks like he lost some weight. He looks to me like he’s in better shape. He’s got a better approach at the plate. He’s a different player. I mean, Viciedo, all the group; Adam Dunn looks good.”
Maddon knows it goes back to Abreu’s presence and effect.
“Saying all that, the guy at first base makes all the difference,” Maddon said about Abreu. “One guy can make that kind of an impact on a team.”
Add a great slugger, and everyone slots in differently. Not just in terms of lineup position, but in terms of personal expectations and comfort level. The pressure is not on Viciedo to dominate or on Dunn to be the only true power. Everyone can relax a bit — and maybe even start to enjoy themselves.
And so far, so can the fans.
Now, if only this team could get some healthy, consistent starting pitching. Or perhaps hold a lead in the late innings. For a group that was expected to have the arms be their strong point, things have flipped awfully quickly.
Can Abreu pitch?
Listen to Matt Spiegel on 670 The Score weekdays from 9 a.m.–1 p.m. CT on The McNeil & Spiegel Show. Follow him on Twitter @MattSpiegel670.