By James Fegan
When the White Sox broke camp in Arizona, they did so without a clear replacement for Adam LaRoche, and question marks across the diamond such as struggling youngster Avisail Garcia, 37-year-old shortstop Jimmy Rollins, Austin Jackson’s declining bat, and needing returns to form from Melky Cabrera, Alex Avila and others.
One thing was clear, to transcend some of the dead spots in their lineup the Sox would need a big year from the heart of their offense: Jose Abreu.
Late into April, the White Sox are off to their best start since Obama took office, and stand atop of not just their division but the entire American League, yet Abreu is in the worst stretch of his career. Through Monday night, he was hitting .176/.267/.324 with three home runs and just 13 hits through 20 games. He has never had a month before in his career when he’s batted under .240, or slugged under .400.
He’s earned it too. While his rate of balls in play that have fallen in for hits suggests he’s been unlucky, Abreu’s current strikeout rate (a shade under 25 percent) would be a career-high if it held up, and when he is making contact, Abreu is fouling off and rolling over pitches he built his reputation on hammering. If you’re looking for an aspect of the red-hot White Sox to worry about – other than that this team cannot give up under three runs per game all year – Abreu is a good target.
But the White Sox won’t join you.
“He know what he’s doing,” Todd Frazier said Saturday, “He’ll be fine.”
“We all know he’s better than that,” Carlos Rodon said.
Only Robin Ventura would give a hint at the depths of the slump Abreu is in, but there is still no other line to give other than some form of ‘he will get out of it.’
“He’s chasing a little bit, swinging out of the zone, he knows that,” Ventura said. “It sounds easier to fix. I think he knows what he’s doing. If we can get him in situations where pitchers feel like they have to throw strikes, it will help him.”
Ventura was not referring to the statistically dubious concept of lineup protection, but getting players on base for him, which reflects where the focus will have to be for improving the Sox offense: not Abreu himself but what can be done around him. As much as there is seamless trust throughout the organization that Abreu is capable of pulling out of this slump very soon, there really is no choice but to focus on what they can fix.
The White Sox are at least a bat short of where they will need to be if they stay in contention. An Avisail Garcia turnaround is likely not happening, let alone one big enough to make him an acceptable DH. Their catching corps is already decimated by injury and struggling to hit, and Jackson is looking like a defensive specialist only so far in center field. With all those problems needing redress, there’s no time to worry about the possibility of one of their cornerstones not being right.
“I’m very confident that I’m going to produce, hit to my level and my offense,” Abreu said through an interpreter Saturday after a poked walkoff single redeemed a 1-for-6 day at the plate. “I need to work and I know I need to work.”
He sounds convincing enough, and even if he didn’t, the Sox would still need to have faith.