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MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Abreu doesn't disappoint in first Major League game

Cuban slugger shakes nerves, offers glimpse of raw power in debut with White Sox

Abreu doesn't disappoint in first Major League game

CHICAGO -- The wrapping is off the package, and White Sox fans must be pinching themselves about Jose Abreu.

They've found their man, the big bat to lead them out of the 99-loss wilderness of 2013. That was the belief when general manager Rick Hahn signed Abreu to a $68 million contract last October, and it took Abreu seeing only five pitches on Opening Day to confirm it.

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There's something different about this guy, something special. Abreu was a more explosive hitter in Cuba than Yoenis Cespedes and his Cienfuegos teammate, Yasiel Puig, and there's no reason to think that level of hitting won't translate to Major League Baseball.

"He just seems to hit the ball hard a lot," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura, who had just watched Abreu's 2-for-4 debut against the Twins, in which he twice flied to center fielder Aaron Hicks, once as he was cruising onto the warning track.

Alejandro De Aza homered twice into a 22-mph wind to carry the Sox to a 5-3 victory, but even he was talking about Abreu, who took over at first base as Paul Konerko watched from the bench. There will be days when pitchers solve Abreu, for sure, but it's going to be fun watching him side by side with the game's best hitters.

"This guy, he can do it all," De Aza said. "He can do it all. I'm happy to be on a team with him."

Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire hadn't seen Abreu hit until the second inning, when he drove a double over right fielder Oswaldo Arcia's head.

"He hit just about every ball hard, dropped the head [of the bat] on it," Gardenhire said. "We all heard he was very strong. We all heard how to try to pitch him. We all saw that if you don't throw the ball where you want to, he's going to hit it really hard. He dropped the head on a couple of low pitches that just jumped. As advertised, [he'] a very strong young man who can backspin a ball."

In the Bill Veeck era, when baseball executives tried to use headlines to drive ticket sales, the Abreu signing would have been a promoter's dream. The White Sox outbid the Giants, Rockies and others to sign Abreu, who was fresh from a World Baseball Classic performance in which he hit .385 with three homers and a 1.145 OPS in only six games.

That small sample went a long way toward validating Abreu's 2011 season in Cuba, when he batted .453 with 33 home runs and 93 RBIs in 66 games for Cienfuegos. Yet, rather than try to increase the expectations that Abreu carries, the White Sox have warned fans that patience could be required because of the transition from Cuba and the learning experience he'll face against the world's best pitchers.

Maybe they're right, and maybe Abreu will be a runaway winner in the American League Rookie of the Year Award voting and in the top 10 in the AL Most Valuable Player Award vote.

"You temper it for his sake," Ventura said. "A lot can be put on his shoulders. What he means to us is a lot, but he can't do it by himself."

Abreu had exactly the type of spring that the White Sox hoped he would have. He touched all the bases, but largely stayed under the radar in Arizona, making few headlines. Abreu's .286 batting average and home run every 19 at-bats was enough to let him feel good about himself, but it didn't add to the curiosity that has surrounded him since those 2011 totals in the Serie Nacional put him on the North American map.

Abreu was obviously anxious to get his MLB career started. He not only swung at the first pitch from Ricky Nolasco, but lashed it over Arcia's head for a double. The pitch was a 91-mph fastball on the outside part of the plate.

"That's the way he hits," said Peter Bjarkman, a columnist for baseballdecuba.com, who is considered a leading expert on Cuban baseball. "Eighty percent of his hits in Cuba were to right field."

His second time up, Abreu also came out swinging. He swung through the first pitch for strike one, but then wouldn't offer when Nolasco threw pitches off the plate. But with men already on second and third, Nolasco couldn't fool around any longer. He threw a low strike and Abreu jumped on it for a single to center field.

The ball was hit so hard that Conor Gillaspie couldn't even think about scoring from second. But that hit gave the White Sox a 3-2 lead and led to another run when Gillaspie hustled across on a 130-foot sacrifice fly, scoring after shortstop Pedro Florimon made a circus catch near the seats.

While Abreu came out swinging, he's more likely to work counts as he settles into his rhythm for the long season. He walked 74 times in 89 games for Cienfuegos one season.

"I don't usually swing at the first pitch, but that pitch was right there and I have to take advantage of it," Abreu said about the second-inning double. "The same thing with the second at-bat. But that's not something that's particular with me. I don't swing at the first pitch."

With White Sox manager of cultural development Lino Diaz translating, Abreu more than held his own in a long postgame interview in the clubhouse. He said it was an emotional day, with thoughts of his mother bringing him to tears during player introductions, but there was little expression on his face as he focused on his words.

"Muy contento," Abreu said at one point, when asked about his feelings.

Not much translation is required there. Nor was there reason to spend much time dissecting Abreu's debut.

See ball. Hit ball. Repeat.

And hopefully carry a team along with him.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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