David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
CHICAGO - Jose Abreu never made it to the field this weekend against the Yankees. The closest he came was the dugout bench, where he sat in a gray hooded sweatshirt and a protective walking boot on his left leg.
Before landing on the disabled list with ankle tendinitis, an injury the White Sox hope does not keep him out much longer than the standard 15 days, Abreu was the most dangerous rookie hitter in baseball.
In fact, he perhaps was the most lethal offensive threat, period, outside the thin air and spacious lawn of Troy Tulowitzki's Coors Field home.
Entering Saturday's games, Abreu's 15 home runs tied him with Nelson Cruz for tops in the majors, and he had done it in 44 games, one fewer than Cruz. His .335 ISO -- or isolated power, which measures how proficient a player is at hitting for extra bases -- ranked second, trailing only Tulowitzki (.344) and well above the two in third place, Cruz and Giancarlo Stanton (.303).
"When you look at his approach and you look at his swing, he really grinds out his at-bats," said White Sox third-base coach Joe McEwing, a former Met. "He's not just a guy that hits for power. He's a very good pure hitter. Along with his maturity and how hard he works, that's tough to find."
The White Sox appeared to take a big gamble on Abreu in signing him to a six-year, $68- million contract in the offseason. It was a costly risk not all that different from the one the Yankees took in spending $175 million on Masahiro Tanaka, another rookie with pro experience -- just not here in the States.
But Abreu, who was an accomplished player for the Cuban national team, is no youngster. He turned 27 in January, so there is an advantage to that, even as he gets acclimated to his new surroundings. In fact, the two early favorites for Rookie of the Year in the American League are shaping up to be Abreu and Tanaka -- along with maybe Yangervis Solarte -- which once again stirs the conversation about the definition of the award.
When Derek Jeter earned ROY honors in 1996, he was 21 on Opening Day after a relatively brief tour of the minors. Jeter didn't have the extra years of physical development that Abreu has nor the big-stage track record of Tanaka's rock-star turn in Japan. But first-year players are lumped together when it comes to rookie status, and in Jeter's way of thinking, the challenges of the game at this level are the same for everyone.
"It's always hard," he said. "It's hard now. You always think it's hard. But I think I was fortunate [in 1996] because we had a lot of veterans on our team that helped make me feel comfortable. When you're new to a place, whether it's Double-A or Triple-A or the big leagues, it takes a while for you to feel comfortable. It's an adjustment."
The White Sox assumed that Abreu would require some time to get up to speed, but he quickly bypassed the expected training-wheel stage. In his first 10 games, he went 12-for-40 with three doubles, a triple, four home runs and 14 RBIs. He finished April with 10 homers, 32 RBIs and a .617 slugging percentage.
Now comes the tough part. From the moment Abreu arrived at the team's spring training facility in Glendale, Arizona, the White Sox were impressed by his preparation. He showed up at 6:30 every morning for the daily workouts, and that work ethic continued when the season began, but being on the DL now presents a different obstacle, a feeling of vulnerability that seems new to Abreu.
"This is really the first time I've been injured like this," he said Friday through an interpreter. "I've never been injured like this before."
It's during these times that doubt can creep in for a rookie, or maybe even affect how he plays. Abreu talked about adjusting his routine to protect the ankle, but he did not think more turns at DH rather than playing first base would be necessary.
The highest number of at-bats Abreu would get during a season in Cuba was about 300. In the majors, it's almost double, so that's something to be mindful of as well. The Yankees closely monitored Tanaka's workload in spring training as part of the process in switching to a five-day rotation from the once-a-week schedule in Japan. But the physical toll of life in the majors is less daunting than the mental aspect of the game, which again favors older rookies who have succeeded elsewhere.
Another case in point is Ichiro Suzuki, the 2001 ROY winner, who was 27 when he arrived in the majors after nine seasons with the Orix Blue Wave. Ichiro was a career .353 hitter in Japan -- he batted .387 in his final season there -- and followed that up with a .350/.381/.457 slash line in his debut year with the Mariners.
"In a game where you fail a high percentage of the time, anybody that succeeds has to be mentally tough," Ichiro said through his interpreter. "That's the key for long-term success."
Tanaka suffered his first loss Tuesday against the Cubs, battling through rainy conditions at Wrigley Field that he felt contributed to his troubles. He'll look to rebound Sunday in what should be more a pleasant afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field, but that's only one of the factors a rookie pitcher must contend with along the way.
Even a 6-0 start can turn into an ordinary season.
Or in Abreu's case, a brilliant first two months.