CHICAGO -- During the 2019 season, when José Abreu was approaching free agency, the usually smiling White Sox first baseman spoke of signing back with the team if a concrete contractual offer was never made.
Abreu was that excited about the abundance of developing talent and the bright future of the organization. The White Sox and Abreu eventually agreed upon a three-year, $50 million extension, but with the final year of that deal now on the horizon after the team’s 2021 season concluded on Tuesday, Abreu wasn’t quite as demonstrative or humorous about life with Chicago after ‘22 during a Zoom call on Wednesday afternoon.
“I don't know,” Abreu said through interpreter Billy Russo. “Whatever happens is going to happen and I'm just going to enjoy the season and just going to try to do my best as I always do, and represent the White Sox organization as I always do.
“That's the only thing I can do right now. My plan is exactly that: Just enjoy the season and see what happens.”
Don’t take Abreu’s comments as a sign of not wanting to stay with a White Sox squad in the early stages of its competitive window. It was probably more a function of fatigue and disappointment after the American League Central leaders had their lofty playoff expectations dashed by the Astros in four games of their the AL Division Series.
This past season also took its toll on Abreu. He tested positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of Spring Training, dealt with the after-effects of a violent on-field collision with Hunter Dozier in the first game of a doubleheader on May 14, and then, Abreu suffered an ankle injury on May 16 after sliding home with the game-winning run on a wild pitch.
There also were flu-like symptoms besetting Abreu from the final Saturday of the regular season through the first playoff game last Thursday.
Nothing was easy for Abreu. But he still slashed .261/.351/.481 over 152 games with 30 home runs and 117 RBIs, marking his fifth season out of eight to hit such a plateau in both statistical categories.
“This was the most difficult year of my career with all the things that I had to pass through,” Abreu said. “I'm just glad that at the end, everything was OK. I'm just going to rest and try to get ready to come back next season better, as I always try to do every year.”
Opposing pitchers hit Abreu with a pitch 22 times in the regular season and twice more by Houston in the ALDS. That second hit by pitch came in the eighth inning of Tuesday’s 10-1 elimination loss, as reliever Kendall Graveman nailed Abreu with two outs and none on after Astros second baseman Jose Altuve was hit earlier in the game.
Manager Tony La Russa was upset by the situation postgame, claiming that Abreu was hit intentionally and how the Astros should cop to such an action. Abreu addressed the situation on Wednesday, once again appreciating La Russa’s support.
“It was a natural reaction. That’s the kind of reaction that I would have if something happened to one of my children,” Abreu said. “Tony was trying to protect me, and he’s always trying to protect us.”
The 2020 White Sox lost an AL Wild Card Series to Oakland in three games under the guidance of manager Rick Renteria. They reached the postseason during back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history and played their first home playoff game since ’08, with La Russa taking his second managerial turn in Chicago.
Abreu expects La Russa to manage the White Sox in 2022, adding “He won’t leave us alone. He’s going to be with us.” Abreu also expects the young and talented White Sox to grow and learn from the disappointing ending to an outstanding season.
“We tried to manage our expectations day by day, game by game. And I think we had a very good season,” Abreu said. “Of course the final outcome wasn’t the one that we all wanted, but we all did our best.
“At the end we faced a pretty good team with a lot of talent and they just were better than us. But I don’t think there is any room to say this was a bad season. It was a very good season. I’m just glad and happy with all the effort, and all the work everybody put in to have the kind of season we had.”