It often gets lost amidst other considerations, but the key word in designated hitter is hitter. The Angels’ Bobby Abreu, 38, lost his ability to do that last year and now is struggling not to disappear amidst theoretically better options, including the returning Kendrys Morales.
In his prime, Abreu was among the best hitters in the game. He hit for both average and power, walked over 100 times a year and stole up to 40 bases a year. The patience and speed are still in evidence, but everything else disappeared last year, leaving the Angels with a positionless player (Abreu once won a Gold Glove for right field play but is no longer capable of playing the outfield due to his inability to go back on the ball).
Normally, the Angels could simply cut ties with a player who has seen significant erosion of his skills, but Abreu is guaranteed $9 million this year, and teams are reluctant to eat that kind of dough. Alas, the money is a red herring. It’s a sunken cost, spent regardless of whether Abreu is on the roster or not. If having him on the team serves no purpose or a very limited one, it would be preferable to release him than to let him be an impediment to the winning effort.
Over the weekend, Abreu made that possibility a bit more tantalizing for the Angels when he told the Venezuelan newspaper Lider en Deportes that he didn’t trust team promises that he would get 400 plate appearances in 2012, saying (via the Los Angeles Times), “I've learned not to have much confidence in these people, but I hope they live up to what they told me. How long am I going to have to continue proving to people what I am and what I'm able to do?”
Disregard the condescending “these people” and focus on the second part of the quote. Bobby, you proved yourself more than 10 years ago, which is why you’ve played over 2,200 games in the big leagues. Alas, you’re not that guy anymore. Ballplayers age. Designated hitters who slug .365 while pushing 40 have to prove themselves all over again—and not once, but constantly. We are all day-to-day in this uncertain world, old buddy, you more so than anybody.
It is unthinkable that any team would trade for Abreu, even if the Angels pick up part of the cost; unless you believe in a rebound—and when it comes to power, Abreu’s candle has been flickering for years—there just isn’t enough incentive to clog up the roster with a player who should have long since given his glove a Viking funeral.
Add in the public rancor, a slow spring (.121 average) and the player reporting to camp a bit on the portly side, and the Angels have been left with an expensive bit of superfluity who is more brick than ballplayer.
Should Abreu be released and clear waivers, any team could sign him for the major-league minimum salary. The Yankees, who were rumored to have discussed sending A.J. Burnett to the Angels for Abreu in a mutual salary dump, ultimately signed Raul Ibanez for $1.1 million. Ibanez has struggled this spring, and even a powerless Abreu will generate more runs via getting on base than Ibanez will hitting the odd home run, but given that the team examined and discarded this option, it’s difficult to see it reversing field so quickly.
Abreu would be an interesting choice for the Tigers, whose corner outfielders (Andy Dirks and Brennan Boesch) and designated hitter (Delmon Young) are far from elite run producers. Adding Abreu to that mix would give the Tigers a shot of OBP at minimal cost.
Even in that case, it’s difficult to see Abreu receiving the 400 PAs he is counting on (it’s not impossible an NL team could sign Abreu, but asking him to play the outfield given his current level of production would be self-defeating—the trade-off of offense and defense wouldn’t wash). If he can’t accept a bench role, he can’t play. If that attitude prevents him from staying with the Angels, it will likely prevent him from going anywhere else.