Jose Abreu is "High on the Cubs Wish List"

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Jose Abreu is “High on the Cubs Wish List” – Let’s Talk Pros and Cons

Chicago Cubs

This weekend, 670 The Score’s Bruce Levine discussed the Chicago Cubs’ anticipated interest in White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu in free agency. The short version? The Cubs are going to be in on him as they look to add offense.

Levine has since amplified his reporting in the written form, and the language he uses is strong:

The money quote: “Veteran first baseman Jose Abreu is high on list of players the Cubs would like to add in free agency this offseason, according to multiple sources.”

In other words, it’s not just that the Cubs have interest in Abreu as among their potential first base targets this offseason, it’s that – according to Levine’s sources – Abreu is a guy the Cubs really want to add, specifically, among all their potential targets.

From where I sit, the desirability is pretty obvious for the Cubs:

Abreu, 35, has still been very productive the last couple years (.284/.365/.463/131 wRC+ between 2021 and 2022), and is a very capable defender at first base. There’s a potentially significant upgrade for the Cubs available right there. On a short-term deal? Heck yeah. I can see this making a lot of sense.

Critically for the Cubs, Abreu is a credible starting first baseman who can also spend time at DH if and when Matt Mervis is ready to start taking some regular at bats in the big leagues. In other words, Abreu is a legit bat that the Cubs can use no matter what happens with Mervis – and he provides extra protection just in case Mervis struggles and/or is not quite ready in the first half next year.

That’s to say nothing of Jose Abreu’s beloved status as a leader and mentor, which you wouldn’t hate having around a young Cubs team. He brings a great power and contact combination, and he’s not going to preclude the Cubs (financially) from doing anything else. And, hey, he’s already a Chicago guy.

In fairness, I should underscore the potential warts here, because they aren’t nonexistent.

For one obvious thing, Abreu will play next season at 36. That doesn’t mean he’s toast, but as each year goes on, the margin for error on an older body grows smaller and smaller. Declines in performance, if they occur, can be rapid and stark, rather than gradual and tolerable. (That’s where you have to be very cautious about the contract you offer.)

For another thing, although Abreu’s production has remained strong overall in his mid-30s, it has *changed,* and in some ways quite dramatically. Take a 10,000 foot view at his stats at FanGraphs:

Do you immediately see it? There was a pretty substantial tradeoff of power for contact in 2022. Until last season, Abreu was a .225 ISO guy – that’s a lot of power. And then last year, just .141. That’s below league average power (.152). Obviously he still produced because it’s not brutal power and he took walks, but look at that BABIP. Pretty good bet that .350 is not quite a normal level for him, and that drove a whole lot of the production. Shave 30 or 40 points off that, and suddenly you’ve got a bat that looks a lot more like his 2018-19 production. Good! Solid! But not great for first base.

Relatedly, Abreu’s barrel rate (9.5%) was his lowest since 2018, and his groundball rate (47.9%) was the highest of his career.

Also? Abreu is a righty. That may or may not be an issue in the final accounting of the roster, but for a good long while, the Cubs have been lacking in lefty power. Among the top prospects who could come up and impact next year, you’ve got Brennen Davis (a righty), Alexander Canario (a righty), and even some depth guys that are disproportionately righty. Moreover, if they add one of the big shortstops this offseason (or, highly unlikely, Aaron Judge), that’s another key righty bat. Abreu’s career splits aren’t enormous, but they are traditional.

Then there’s the flip side to the Mervis argument.

In a best case scenario, Abreu covers first base capably when he plays, but not so much that it prevents Matt Mervis from breaking out and mostly taking over first base (or, Abreu is solid and it’s clear Mervis isn’t quite ready anyway). In a worst case scenario, Abreu stinks and Mervis plays no matter what. Those are the easy ones.

But what about the middle scenario? Where Abreu is, you know, fine. And Mervis is maybe kinda showing some good stuff, but maybe kinda not. So Abreu lingers in the position long enough to not give Mervis a real chance to play and adjust. It’s up to the organization to make that work, obviously, but we’ve seen that kind of purgatory before. Sometimes you wind up harming young player development because you gave yourself too many options.

Of course, even in the event that Abreu is playing reasonably well and Mervis shows out so much that he forces the Cubs to really commit to him, you can still DH Abreu a lot. That’s a good outcome for this specific dynamic. But if THAT happens, then you’ve gobbled up a whole lot of your DH starts with Jose Abreu – because he can’t play anywhere else – and that reduces the availability of that spot to partially rest guys, and/or optimize other match-ups. So even in that good scenario, there’s still a cost to be considered.

Wow. I spent a lot of time on the warts there. It probably makes it seem like this isn’t a great idea.

But no! It is! Those are just the considerations you have to keep in mind in a deal like this, and probably why you should be pretty aggressive in holding the line on your offer. One year and an option? Two cheaper years? I don’t know that you could or should do more than that. Abreu, for what it’s worth, is coming off a three-year, $50 million deal, and I don’t realistically see him getting a raise on his $16.7 million AAV.

On a short-term deal, the “risks” discussed above are all somewhat tempered because you can change course if necessary and not feel too much pain (again, the Cubs would have to be VERY smart about that “not quite bad, not quite good” middle scenario, though).

And the pluses? They are still fantastic. Abreu could rebound a bit in his power and still keep up the great plate discipline. That’s a real pain-in-the-butt bat to have to face if you’re a pitcher, and it could dramatically improve the first base production for the Cubs in 2023. It buys the Cubs PLENTY of cover for Mervis’s development, but doesn’t necessarily outright block him in the same way that, for example, bringing back Anthony Rizzo would. I think it’s possible Mervis is a big league starter at this point. But a team like the Cubs shouldn’t just ASSUME it, especially if the “protection” they can get is a guy who might very well still be a tremendous performer who is also great in the clubhouse.

There’s a reason the Cubs are, reportedly, putting Jose Abreu high on their list of offseason targets. I’m still very into it. But, like I said, I do think you at least have to be aware of the potential issues.

Author: Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor is the Editor and Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and @Brett_A_Taylor.