As you’re all well aware, the Angels released Bobby Abreu last Friday and called up Mike Trout from Triple-A Salt Lake, a move that was likely going to happen eventually but was expedited due to a 6-14 start. This is a move Angels fans, myself included, had been clamoring for since Opening Day. Even at 20 years old, it was obvious that Trout was Abreu’s superior in almost every facet of the game. We lobbied against Abreu’s allegedly cancerous presence on a team that stumbled out of the gate; he was a convenient scapegoat for our preseason World Series contender. But it wasn’t that long ago that Abreu was a fan favorite and a key contributor to a winning team.
In 2009, the Angels reached the ALCS and lost in six games to the Yankees. One of that team’s best players was Abreu, who left said Yankees and signed with the Angels after the 2008 season for one year and $5 million, a contract that proved to be a huge bargain for the Angels. If you’ll recall, Abreu quickly endeared himself to an Angels fan base that had long starved for a batter that would work counts and get on base via walk. That season, Abreu hit .293/.390./.435. The slugging left a lot to be desired but Angels fans got over it pretty easily since he was on base all the time and stole 30 bases.
The media narrative at the time praised Abreu for bringing patience to a swing-happy Angels bunch. The cause and effect likely isn’t that simple, but on the surface the numbers supported the theory: in 2008, the Angels ranked 18th in the majors in OBP, in 2009 they ranked 3rd. The narrative that year propelled Abreu to finish 12th in MVP voting (albeit with 2.7 rWAR, but still) and prompted the Angels to reward him with a 2 year contract worth $19 million with, and here’s the kicker, a 2012 option that vested if he had 550 plate appearances in 2011. He had 585 in 2011.
Three years later, Bobby Abreu’s skills have deteriorated to replacement level. He followed an awful spring (a paltry .127/.226/.164 line in 55 at-bats) with an awful start to the regular season: in 27 plate appearances, he had a .208/.259/.333 slash line and, in what was perceived to be his one redeeming quality, only 2 walks.* Yes it’s a small sample size and yes Spring Training can be largely irrelevant, but his numbers are symptomatic of his declining skills, skills the Tony Reagins-era Angels foolishly purchased 3 years of.
* His struggles were also exacerbated by Mike Scioscia electing to play him in the field. Even though it’s a ridiculously small sample size (only 45 innings in left field), if we expand Abreu’s 2012 UZR to 150 games, it comes out to -18.5. Again, this should be taken with a grain of salt, but it became obvious in recent years that Abreu was more liability than asset in the outfield.
The media narrative has also changed. Every time Abreu weakly grounded out or misplayed a ball during Spring Training, the Angels beat writers were quick to report it on Twitter. While it certainly appears Abreu is #washedup, he isn’t willing to admit it, going so far as to criticize the Angels in a Venezuelan newspaper before the regular season, stating he’s skeptical he would receive the 400 PAs the team promised him since the Angels have logjams at 1B/DH/OF.
After his stunt with the Venezuelan press and bad attitude in general, Angels fans blasted Abreu and painted him as a selfish egomaniac who doesn’t seem to realize his skills no longer serve a useful function on the big league level. Those assertions are most likely correct, but what is Abreu supposed to do? Complaining to the press is inappropriate, but was he just supposed to be happy that the Angels have younger, better and cheaper options than him?
There’s a famous poem by Dylan Thomas, published in 1951, that you might have heard. It’s usually titled “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Don’t worry, I’m not trying to impress you with my literary knowledge and this isn’t going to be a regular thing with me; this poem is hammered into your brain when you take enough literature survey courses, like I did. Anyway, Thomas wrote the poem for his dying father, pleading him to fight against his soon-death. The first stanza reads as follows: “Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Abreu’s behavior on and off the field, in the exhibition and regular season, made me think of this poem and sympathize with Abreu as he enters his career’s twilight. When in his prime, Abreu was an undeniably great player. You don’t suck and have 8 straight seasons with 4.5+ WAR under you belt. Abreu isn’t stupid. He knows he isn’t the same player, but that doesn’t mean he has to accept it.
Many Hall of Fame athletes don’t accept when their playing days are well behind them. Willie Mays on the Mets. Steve Carlton on the Twins. Johnny Unitas on the Chargers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled Mike Trout is with the big club now, but I also don’t begrudge Abreu for putting up a fight. After all, he isn’t the one that gave himself a 3-year contract or allowed it to vest last summer.
The latest rumor I read was that Abreu was talking to the Dodgers about joining their team as a pinch hitter and reserve outfielder. With Magic Johnson now officially part of Dodgers’ ownership, it would be sort of poetic if they acquired Abreu. After retiring at age 31 due to HIV in 1991 (when we still knew very little about the virus and ways it spread), Magic decided to suit up one last time for the Lakers. In the 1995-96 season, he played 32 games for the Lakers at power forward. Magic was passable, but he wasn’t THE Magic everyone knew. He officially decided to call it quits after the season, satisfied he got to retire on his terms.
Magic isn’t involved in any of the Dodgers’ baseball decisions (or at least I hope he isn’t), but I’m sure he can sympathize with Abreu. Like Magic, Abreu was an All-Star player for a decade and with how productive his career has been, I’m sure he feels he’s earned the right to prove himself one last time or, at the very least, go out on his own terms. Abreu isn’t the selfish veteran the media and fans portrayed him as. He’s just raging against the dying of the light.
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