The Chicago White Sox will be spending the 2014 season saying goodbye to one of the best hitters in the franchise's storied history, while simultaneously saying hello to perhaps the next great slugger on the South Side.
In many ways, it's fitting that at the same time longtime White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, who ranks second in club history in both games played (2,191) and home runs (427), is embarking on the final year of his career, Cuban-born phenom Jose Abreu is getting his Major League Baseball career started.
If Abreu lives up to the hype that comes with his club-record six-year, $68 million contract and outstanding performance in Cuba's Serie Nacional (Cuba's National Series)—where he won MVP and established a single-season home run mark in 2010-11 while posting statistics that wouldn't look out of place in a video game adjusted to the "too-easy" setting—then he'll be taking the first-base baton from Konerko, who received it from freshly minted Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.
That could be quite a way to extend an already impressive line of power-hitting first basemen, and if Tuesday night is an early-2014 indication, then Abreu appears poised to take over and lead a rebuilt White Sox squad going forward.
Manager Robin Ventura recently explained how important Abreu is to the organization, via Scott Merkin of MLB.com:
He's a pretty grounded kid who just wants to be a good baseball player. He understands what he means for us, where he hits in the lineup, the responsibilities he has. We're very happy with where he's at right now and I expect him to get better just as the season goes along.
On Tuesday at hitter-haven Coors Field, Abreu started to do just that as he powered the White Sox to a 15-3 thrashing of the Colorado Rockies. In going 2-for-5 with two runs scored and five RBI, the 27-year-old launched a pair of home runs—the first two of his major league career.
Better yet for Chicago, the rookie's two-homer effort was matched by second-year outfielder Avisail Garcia, who went 4-for-5 with solo shots in the second and eighth innings.
As for Abreu, with two on in the seventh inning, he put together an incredible 12-pitch at-bat against right-hander Chad Bettis, fouling off several pitches before doing this against the reliever brought into the game to face him:
In the very next inning, the righty-swinging Abreu went ahead and hit an even more impressive two-run homer, one that was smashed to the opposite field off reliever Wilton Lopez and got out in a hurry.
All Jose Abreu does is hit home runs now. It's a thing. Just blasted an oppo two-run shot to the back wall in right-center bullpen.— Dan Hayes (@DanHayesCSN) April 9, 2014
Abreu's big game gives him the following totals through the first eight games of his career: 8-for-32 (.250) with two home runs and 11 RBI.
That's some start for the South Siders' next star slugger.
And it's just what the Sox need, too, considering they're coming off a terribly disappointing 2013 season in which they had the third-worst record (63-99) and scored the second-fewest runs (598) in the majors.
There's plenty of hope in Chicago now, though, thanks to an on-the-fly rebuilding job by new general manager Rick Hahn. Not only did Hahn ink Abreu last October, but he also brought in center fielder Adam Eaton, third-base prospect Matt Davidson and the aforementioned Garcia, who was the first of this new batch of young talent to come aboard as part of the Jake Peavy trade in July 2013.
Abreu, though, is at the center of it all. And he needs to be, considering that for the first time in more than two decades, the team was facing an uncertain future at first base entering the season. The White Sox are expecting Abreu to learn from Konerko, who's in his 16th—and final—year with the organization.
They're also hoping Abreu can take over for Konerko at first base as well as in the heart of the lineup and in the hearts of White Sox fans.
Judging by his memorable two-homer performance in Colorado, Abreu's coming-out party is only getting started, and Tuesday was just his own little way of saying hello, while Konerko says goodbye.
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