And so, after a season's interruption, Bobby Abreu begins what he hopes will be the eighteenth year of his career in Major League Baseball at the mercy of the New York Mets.
The last time we saw him, Abreu was playing out west, beginning the 2012 season with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the team with which he'd spent the three previous seasons, before being released at the end of April after appearing in only eight games for the Halos. He left the American League but not the greater Los Angeles area, signing with the Dodgers in May and spending most of the summer with them, then getting designated for assigment on August 1, the day after they traded for Shane Victorino. (He'd later return in September for 21 more plate appearances, exclusively as a pinch hitter.)
Abreu, 38 at the time, hit .242/.350/.342 in only 257 PA that season, his final start coming on July 25, and when he was granted free agency that winter there was no interest in giving him a guaranteed major league contract for the following year. Abreu never announced his formal retirement, but it seemed all but certain that he was done in Major League Baseball. Perhaps he still is -- but given the Mets, who knows.
Abreu has a better Hall of Fame case than you probably think he does, especially if you're a Yankees fan and almost certainly if you root for the Phillies. That's not to say he has any real shot of getting into the Hall -- the unpredictable schizophrenia of the current electorate aside, Abreu's case has a lot in common with that of John Olerud. Both men put up a career 129 OPS+ over 17 seasons (and counting for Abreu), both played positions on the low end of the defensive spectrum and both played for generally successful teams whose superstars constantly overshadowed them.
Abreu spent parts of his first two seasons with the Jeff Bagwell / Craig Biggio Astros before going to the Phillies for nine years, but while his final four or five seasons would see him take a back seat to Jim Thome, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, his first few seasons with the club -- 1998 through 2002 or so -- saw him splitting the spotlight at the plate with Scott Rolen, another perennially underrated player who likely won't make it into the Hall. Unfortunately, the 1998 through 2002 Phillies were not a particularly successful team, and while those five years were the best of Abreu's career -- he hit .312/.415/.534 with 113 HR and 503 BB to 616 K in 3320 PA as the Phillies' everyday right fielder -- the team finished over .500 only once and never made the postseason.
Over the course of his career in Philly he gained a reputation as a guy who could hit the ball, but who was soft and tentative in the field and couldn't "Carry the Team on His Back" -- though that had far more to do with the best starting pitchers during that era in Philadelphia after Curt Schilling being Randy Wolf and Robert Person, and the team giving full seasons of work to guys like Rico Brogna (.756 OPS, 92 OPS+ in four seasons as the Phillies first baseman) and Marlon Anderson (.686 OPS, 80 OPS+ in five seasons as the Philadelphia second baseman) than it did with Abreu not being willing to run full-speed into an outfield wall.
Abreu went to the Yankees in 2006 and left after the 2008 season, missing a ring by one year, and while he was in the Bronx was overshadowed by the usual suspects -- Jeter, Posada, Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon, Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui. Robinson Cano was on those teams too, but that was before he'd blown up into a superstar. Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter were certainly far less stiff competition for attention in Los Angeles, but by the time Abreu signed on with the Angels, his best years were firmly behind him. By the end of 2011, he was a league average bat best suited for a DH role.
It's been three years since then and none of that has changed a whole lot; Abreu turned 40 last month during the middle of Spring Training with the Phillies, who invited him to camp because he wanted to come and because taking chances on veterans -- especially veterans with questionably frayed defensive skills -- is something that's in the genetic makeup of the current Phillies management. Even they couldn't figure out a way for him to make the Opening Day roster, but it's not as if Abreu had a bad camp; just one that didn't inspire any confidence that he was going to magically rediscover his pop. He hit .244/.404/.366 in 52 PA, somehow working a triple in there (one suspects minor leaguer defense played some role in this), and in all honesty it's difficult to see a path to the majors for him with a National League team -- his best bet is to come up, get hot for a bit, and hopefully get flipped to an AL team in the Wild Card picture looking to add cheap value at DH.
Baseball has made Abreu a rich man, so it's probably not money that's got him starting April in the minor leagues for the first time since he was 22 years old, almost half a lifetime ago. He could still be in love with the game, he could still be chasing a ring, or he could just not know what else he should be doing with his life, having spent so much of it on a baseball diamond. His reasons are his own, and they're unlikely so simply narrowed down to one single thing. One of the best players of a generation is on a last, quiet hurrah, and those of us who remember him as he was can only hope he finds what he's looking for in it before the moment slips away.