Abreu hits power switch
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 1999
Last season, Bobby Abreu proved he could hit. This season, the former Devil Ray-for-a-day wants opponents to feel his power.
Abreu, the third player selected by Tampa Bay in the 1997 expansion draft, immediately was shipped to Philadelphia in a prearranged deal for Kevin Stocker, the Phillies' regular shortstop since the middle of the '93 season.
While Stocker's 1998 season ended with a bad break, Abreu's ended on a high note.
The rightfielder, who led all Phillies regulars with a .312 batting average, gained strength late and hit 10 of his 17 homers in the final two months.
"I grabbed him by the neck, just messing around," manager Terry Francona said, "and it seemed like there was a lot more there," the result of an off-season weight-training program that saw the 6-footer go from 160 pounds in 1997 to 186 this season.
"I don't think we've seen close to his ceiling in power. But I'm not going to put a number on it. Why talk about it? Why make him think about it? His power improved as last year went on; hopefully it'll get better as he sees more pitching, as he gets more comfortable within his role," Francona said.
Truth be told, Abreu (pronounced uh-bray-yew) is already thinking about it, sort of. He led the majors with a .427 average with runners in scoring position and drove in 74 runs but said, "I think hitting home runs is important for every player.
"But I'm just going to try to hit line drives and stay in my game. If I do that, the home runs will come.
"I think when you get more experience is when you get more power. And I'd like to have better numbers. I know I had a good season last year. I'd like to be better this season. I'd like to do better every year."
He got a head start on this spring with a sensational off-season, leading all hitters in the Venezuelan Winter League playoffs, hitting .422 and finishing second in RBI (16) and runs (17). During the season, his .419 batting average was the best in league history.
"He's a pretty polished hitter," Francona said. "From Day 1 last year he never dropped below .300. He got down to .300 a couple of times but always had a three- or four-hit game right then."
Because of Abreu's .409 on-base percentage last season, Francona thought briefly about batting him at the top of the order. "Bobby Bonds batted leadoff," he said of Barry Bonds' father, who was as much a slugger as a hitter, with 25 or more home runs nine times in his 14-season career."
Francona's voice trailed off. "I don't know. Bobby can do a lot of things -- steal bases, hit home runs, lay a bunt down once in a while. ... I could feel comfortable with Bobby batting third, fourth, fifth, sixth, driving in people. That's what we look for Bobby to do."
Abreu was made available for the expansion draft by Houston, which had a surfeit of outfielders, and he wound up ricocheting from Tampa Bay to Philadelphia because, Francona said, "the Devil Rays were trying to build a foundation -- still are -- and they wanted a guy to catch the ball. We were looking for a young outfielder, they wanted a shortstop, we had a young shortstop (Desi Relaford) coming up that we wanted in there. It made sense for both of us."
Last season, the Phillies got the better of the deal. Stocker struggled, batting .208 before his season ended Aug. 29 when he was hit by a pitch, fracturing his left hand.
"He's a major-league shortstop," Francona said. "They don't grow on trees. Stocker breaks his hand; you don't plan something like that. There's a lot of baseball to be played. If Stocker hits .280 this year, plays the whole year, catches everything in sight, (the Rays) are going to be very happy."
Abreu, the primary provider for his family in Aragua, Venezuela, turned 25 Tuesday. He will be eligible for arbitration after this season. The Phillies want to sign him to a long-term contract (negotiations fell apart March 1), just as they signed third baseman Scott Rolen, the 1997 National League Rookie of the Year to a four-year, $10-million deal a year ago.
Those kinds of numbers are not on Abreu's mind now. "I don't think about the contract," he said. "If it happens and I get some security for my family, that would be nice. Four years would be nice. But I'm not really thinking about it."