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White Sox recognized Abreu's Miggy-level potential

With high hopes, Chicago signs Cuban slugger to six-year, $68 million contract

CHICAGO -- There were no screaming headlines when the Chicago White Sox traded for Paul Konerko, nor when they promoted Magglio Ordonez from Triple-A one August or when they selected Auburn University first baseman Frank Thomas in the 1989 Draft.

But sometimes the excitement comes before the first swing of the bat. That certainly was the case when the White Sox announced the signing of Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu before a packed house at U.S. Cellular Field's Conference and Learning Center on Tuesday.

How crowded was it? Between reporters, lawyers, friends of Abreu, White Sox officials and invited club employees, there were more than 100 in the room.

There wasn't this large of a group present when scouts and executives gathered for the 26-year-old slugger's two-day showcase earlier this month at the Yankees' facility in the Dominican Republic, and that's saying a lot, because Abreu attracted multi-person delegations from most of the 30 franchises.

It's a sign of Abreu's potential to generate numbers like Konerko and Ordonez -- if not Thomas and Miguel Cabrera -- that White Sox general manager Rick Hahn identified in marking him a must-have player, ultimately signing the slugger to a six-year contract worth $68 million.

Expected to hit third or fourth for Robin Ventura, Abreu will become the first No. 79 in team history and third in Major League history, behind pitchers Justin De Fratus and Jean Machi.

"I'd like to thank the White Sox for allowing me to wear 79,'' Abreu said through an interpreter. "The story behind the number is that I asked my mom to pick a number for me. She identified a number that people would remember who 79 was, what 79 had done on the field. So my mother picked the number. I wear it for her.''

A right-handed hitter who will probably be listed at 6-2, 250-260 pounds, Abreu played five seasons in Cuba's Serie Nacional, and was introduced to some North American fans in an article written by Jonah Keri for ESPN's Grantland website. The headline on that February 2012 story was: "The Best Hitter You've Never Heard Of,'' with the subhead: "Jose Abreu is putting up godlike numbers in the closed-off world of Cuba.'' Other fans may have witnessed his performance in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, in which he went 9-for-25 with 3 home runs, 6 runs and 9 RBIs in six games for Cuba's team.

Because the ballparks are smaller, the pitching pool not as deep and the season much shorter, there is no apples-to-apples comparison between baseball in Cuba and baseball in the American League Central. But we can say this for sure: Abreu out-hit Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig in his native country, and both have been Major League sensations.

In Abreu's best season, 2010-11, he batted .453 with a .597 on-base percentage, .986 slugging percentage, 33 home runs and 93 RBIs, and he only played in 66 games after missing 23 with bursitis in his shoulder.

No wonder seven other teams are believed to have gone into the final round of bidding against the White Sox, with the Red Sox and Rangers reportedly among the most aggressive.

Hahn says he and his front office staff identified Abreu as the one free agent who could help the White Sox patch up the team that lost 99 games in '13, with the potential to remain in his prime throughout his six-year contract.

Team owner Jerry Reinsdorf's affinity for Minnie Minoso prompted the team's signing of a handful of Cuban players in the last decade, with Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez on the 2005 championship team and current players Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo. Reinsdorf authorized an aggressive pursuit of Abreu, which included firsthand scouting from former White Sox GM and current executive vice president Ken Williams.

This was Hahn's first major deal, and he expressed his interest early to agents Barry Praver, Scott Shapiro and Bart Hernandez and stayed in touch, upping the ante several times before agreeing to terms two weeks ago. "There were times you had doubts about the ability to get this done,'' Hahn admitted. "But we stayed regularly in touch with them and never felt in the dark. That helped my level of anxiety.''

This is not to say that the anxiety has gone away. There are skeptics out there that point to flaws in Abreu's mechanics and so-called "slider-speed'' bat. They suggest that he will struggle to succeed against pitchers who throw in the high-90s and have the ability to command an array of breaking pitches.

Hahn says there is "a calculated risk'' associated with the signing. But he quietly dropped a reference to the "Davenport Translations'' during his news conference, which is code for: "Are you kidding me? This guy is the next Miguel Cabrera.''

Clay Davenport, a co-founder of Baseball Prospectus, devised a system to project Major League performance based on stats from other leagues. He nailed his projection on Cespedes' rookie season with the Athletics, so why not let him take a crack at Abreu?

The Davenport numbers for that white-hot 2010-11 season suggest that Abreu would have been capable of putting up this slash line in the Major Leagues: .381/.495/.809. He wasn't as good the next season, but still hit .394 with 35 home runs in 87 games for Cienfuegos.

Hernandez, an agent with experience as a Minor League player, cites Andres Galarraga and, yes, the Tigers' Cabrera, for Abreu's potential. Both Hahn and Hernandez praise Abreu for being an intelligent hitter, not just a slugger.

"To me, he's the best hitter who has ever come out of Cuba,'' Hernandez said. 'He's as accomplished as you can get. He has a fundamentally sound approach, very balanced at the plate, and he's a smart hitter.''

Hahn says he doesn't expect Abreu's bat to put the White Sox back together again after a slow, steady descent from the '05 World Series. He's a core piece, just like right fielder Avisail Garcia (acquired from Detroit in the three-team Jake Peavy trade). The task will now become filling in the holes around the new guys in the middle of the order.

Hahn made Abreu his first signature signing because Reinsdorf wants to compete with the Tigers in the AL Central. Life around U.S. Cellular Field just got a lot livelier, and that wasn't going to happen if the White Sox didn't take some risks.

If they were right about good ol' No. 79, the return will be enormous.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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