COMMENTARY | I just had a Chase Utley Championship Parade moment. "World Champions. World Effing Champions."
I'll admit that I can work up a healthy dislike for certain athletes and Bobby Abreu is a guy that I just did not like when he was with the Phillies from 1998 to 2006. He was a great hitter, but his effort was sorely lacking most of the time. He was seemingly allergic to the outfield wall to the point that he would never go near it while chasing a fly ball. And he was considered somewhat of a clubhouse cancer by the time former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick decided to trade Abreu to the Yankees in July 2006.
At the time, some thought it was a bad move to trade away such a good hitter, but Gillick was more interested in team chemistry and allowing his young nucleus of Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley to take over the team. (Yes, I know how silly it sounds to refer to them as "young"). The plan worked, as the Phillies made the playoffs for five consecutive years starting in 2007 and won the World Series in 2008.
So I thought it was rather strange that current GM Ruben Amaro Jr would bring back a soon-to-be 40-year-old Abreu, who was out of baseball in 2013. After all, the team sent Utley on a media tour just last week to pump up the fans at a time when interest in a team was at its lowest point in the last decade. The Abreu signing has been universally panned by the Phillies' fanbase, and rightfully so.
I understand why the Phillies felt they needed to sign a player like Abreu, though. The team needed a left-handed bat off the bench and Abreu could always hit. He just batted .322 with three homers, 28 RBIs and an .877 OPS in 50 games with Leones del Caracas in the Venezuelan league. He followed that up with .464 with 8 homers and 5 doubles in 15 postseason games. Apparently, that got the attention of a few teams, including the Phillies.
Abreu was only signed to a non-guaranteed, minor league contract for $800,000, so he isn't even a sure thing to make the opening-day roster. I mean, if he was still a great hitter he wouldn't have been out of baseball last season. He'll have to prove himself in spring training. And he'll have to prove himself to new manager Ryne Sandberg, who hates anyone who doesn't play the game the right way.
Abreu is sure to get plenty of at-bats in spring training, so that the team can see if he has anything left in the tank. The upside is that Abreu is the type of hitter who can come off the bench every game, getting less than 10 at-bats a week, and still be productive. At least, that's the theory.
Abreu was a great hitter when he was with the Phillies from 1998 to 2006, with a .303 batting average, 195 home runs and a .928 OPS in 1,353 games. Of course, that was a long time ago. Abreu had his worst season in 2012, when he hit only .242. That explains why nobody signed him in 2013. The upside is that his on-base percentage was still .350 in 2012. If you don't think that's very good, consider the fact that Utley led the team with a .348 on-base percentage last season. Yeah, they were that bad.
Another problem I have with this signing is that it would seem to leave Darin Ruf without a spot on the opening-day roster. I know Ruf isn't a superstar, but I think he has potential. I think he can be a run producer for the team if it gives him everyday at-bats. But the signing of Marlon Byrd already dashed those hopes and this signing pretty much punches Ruf's ticket to Triple-A to open the 2014 season.
Since Abreu was a bad outfielder in his prime, I don't expect him to see much time in the field all these years later. The recently re-signed John Mayberry Jr is the only outfielder who can back up Ben Revere in center. Wil Nieves was signed to be the backup catcher. And the team is sure to keep two of Kevin Frandsen, Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez as backup infielders. That leaves Ruf as the odd man out for the available bench spots if the left-handed-hitting Abreu has anything left in the tank.
Hey, I'm one of the few people who like what Amaro has done this offseason. With the recently signed mega TV deal in the works, the team had to keep its star power to keep the ratings as high as possible. That meant riding this aging core for at least another year or two. I just never thought the Phillies would sign players who would make that core older. If they stay healthy, maybe they can make a run at the playoffs. If they keep breaking down or simply don't produce, there will be a fire sale at the trade deadline and Cliff Lee will be the first one out the door.
Amaro is finally doing what his mentor Gillick always did. Instead of signing the biggest free agents, he's trying to add complementary pieces around his high-priced core. I don't think Abreu is going to turn out to be the next Jayson Werth, but I'd settle for him being the next Matt Stairs. Every good team needs that kind of hitter available to pinch hit in the late innings.
I can't believe I actually talked myself into not hating this deal in the short time it took me to write this. I must be losing it.
In the end, this deal couldn't possibly be worse than Amaro's horrible deal with Delmon Young last season. At least Amaro isn't expecting Abreu to start in the outfield, after not playing in the field the last few years, like he did with Young.
All the team is looking for is a left-handed bat off the bench who doesn't need constant playing time to stay productive, like Jim Thome. That actually describes Abreu. At least it did a few years ago. We'll find out if he's more like Stairs or Thome in a little over a month.
Bob Whalon is a life-long Philadelphia sports fanatic who follows the home teams religiously, but isn't above pointing out what they're doing wrong. The highlight of his sports fandom was the Phillies' 2008 World Championship, and he isn't quite ready to let go of the greatest era of Phillies baseball just yet.
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- Bobby Abreu
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