CHICAGO -- Is there a better hitter on the planet than Jose Abreu?
That was the question some asked a few years ago, when Abreu delivered epic production for the Cienfuegos Elephants in Cuba, and we might be asking it again in August and September. Abreu has come out swinging like he's intent on joining Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout in future discussions about the American League's MVP Award.
On a Friday night, when the Blackhawks and Bulls delivered dramatic playoff victories, Abreu reminded us that baseball is the backbone of Chicago as one of America's great sports cities.
Abreu blasted an outside fastball from Grant Balfour for a walk-off grand slam against the Tampa Bay Rays, sending the ball into the visitor's bullpen in right field. The two-out shot was his second home run of the game, following one in the third inning to straightaway center field off Chris Archer. Abreu now has three multihomer games in 24 career contests.
It's been a long time since the fireworks at U.S. Cellular Field sounded as loud as they did on Abreu's game-winning homer. In interviews afterward, the Spanish-speaking Abreu was cool, as always, saying only that it was "awesome" to come through in such a big way with a game on the line. But his joy poured out as he rounded the bases, with him throwing his batting helmet high into the sky as he headed toward the crowd of teammates waiting at home plate.
Abreu has been a consummate pro since putting on a uniform for a hitter's mini-camp in January, and he has been embraced by his new teammates. They're happy for him, and as Alejandro De Aza said on Opening Day, happy Abreu's on their team and not someone else's.
Despite a 1-for-26 stretch that prompted manager Robin Ventura to take Abreu out of the lineup for one game, the big first baseman is hitting .263 with nine home runs and 27 RBIs. He's tied with Albert Pujols for the AL home run lead and with the Twins' Chris Colabello for most RBIs.
Publicly, the White Sox downplayed their immediate expectations for Abreu during Spring Training, saying they knew he was facing a major transition and would have ups and downs. But they also felt his bat would revitalize a lineup that was last in the AL in scoring in 2013.
"Jose has been as advertised -- what we were hoping we would have gotten with him," general manager Rick Hahn said. "You've already seen what we were talking about, in terms of him having about a 20-plate-appearance slump in there where he had to make some adjustments. He was able to respond and make those adjustments. That's probably going to happen again over the course of a six-month season. But in terms of professional approach -- the power, the seriousness with which he takes his craft -- [he] has been as advertised, starting the first day he showed up on campus."
Abreu's game-winning grand slam came one night before the White Sox will pass out miniature replicas of the Minnie Minoso statue at U.S. Cellular Field. Abreu signed a six-year, $68-million contract with the White Sox in part because of the team's rich history with Cuban players, and his arrival has energized Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo, the two other Cubans in Ventura's lineup. They're among the league leaders in batting average -- something no one could have seen coming.
As many as five teams bid over $60 million for Abreu, with the Red Sox, Astros, Brewers and Rockies among the runners-up in a fast-moving process that played out last October. The White Sox targeted him as a long-term difference-maker after a 99-loss season, and they couldn't look smarter at the moment.
Another thing they look? Dangerous.
They were 2-17 against the Indians last year, but have already turned that around, winning three of their first four meetings vs. Cleveland. They split a four-game series in Detroit last week and can't wait to play the Tigers next week at U.S. Cellular -- even with Chris Sale missing while taking a seemingly precautionary pit stop, and right fielder Avisail Garcia -- another future All-Star -- out for the season after surgery on his left shoulder.
Often playing in difficult weather for hitters, the White Sox are averaging 5.6 runs per game. Only the Angels are doing better, and compared to what has been spent on Pujols, Trout and Josh Hamilton, the White Sox have Abreu at a bargain price, which will make it easier to pursue parts to put around him next offseason -- if not midseason.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire saw the way the ball jumped off Abreu's bat on Opening Day and intentionally walked him twice in his second Major League game. It will be very interesting to see how Rays skipper Joe Maddon approaches him the next three days after the 3-for-5, six-RBI showcase on Friday.
Yasiel Puig hit .436 with seven homers and 16 RBIs for the Dodgers' last June, arguably the best first month ever for a rookie hitter. Abreu hasn't been as flashy as Puig, who once hit in front of him in the Cienfuegos batting order. But when you watch Abreu, you get the feeling that he can sustain his fast start, at least if he continues to be challenged by pitchers.
It seems foolhardy to compare anybody to Cabrera, who actually elevated his hitting last season after winning the Triple Crown in 2012. But from what Abreu has shown in April, you can't overlook how he's the same kind of hitter as Detroit's superstar.
Abreu combines raw strength with good bat speed. He can drive the ball to right field as easily as he can pull it to left field. He gets the barrel of the bat on a lot of balls, and he is willing to take walks.
One difference is that Abreu is looking like a triple-digit strikeout guy, while Cabrera hasn't had 100-plus strikeouts since 2009. Abreu might not be a .300 hitter, although his gaudy totals in Cuba (.453 with 33 homers in 66 games in 2011, for instance) say not to rule that out.
The sky's the limit for this guy, as the Rays just learned the hard way.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.