Abreu earned a shot with Phillies through winter-ball revival

Bobby Abreu, who tore up the Venezuelan league during winter ball (eight homers in 15 postseason games), is fighting for a spot on the Phillies. If he makes the team, he'll be paid $800,000.
Bobby Abreu, who tore up the Venezuelan league during winter ball (eight homers in 15 postseason games), is fighting for a spot on the Phillies. If he makes the team, he'll be paid $800,000. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: February 24, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It was last June, the sting of baseball's first rejection still fresh, when Bobby Abreu resolved to find a better conclusion to his career.

He trained in Venezuela and did not watch much of the game that unceremoniously dumped him after 22 years. He embraced rest with the hope of proving his worth come winter.

"The word on the street," Jorge Velandia said, "was that he was trying to come back."

Velandia, a Phillies special assistant, is also the general manager for Tiburones de La Guaira, a Venezuelan winter-ball team. Abreu, who turns 40 in March, played for the rival Leones de Caracas. They often opposed one another in the eight-team league, and Velandia endured Abreu's resurrection.

"He actually killed us the whole time," Velandia said.

This is how Abreu's improbable spring tryout materialized. Velandia filed reports to Philadelphia, where Ruben Amaro Jr. was searching for a lefthanded bench bat. Abreu kept hitting. He bashed eight home runs in 15 Venezuelan postseason games, and that is when Velandia again called Amaro.

"I want to keep playing the game," Abreu said. "I want to be a part of a team. To come off the bench - we've talked about that - it's not a problem for me. I just love to play the game. I know I can still play. To have this opportunity right now, it's fun."

Abreu is all but assured a bench spot if he demonstrates competency during Grapefruit League play. The Phillies owe him nothing but meal money until March 26, when they must inform Abreu whether he made the roster. He will earn $800,000 if he makes the team.

Manager Ryne Sandberg wants a lefthanded bat on his bench; Tony Gwynn Jr., Clete Thomas, and Tyson Gillies are the options in camp with slimmer odds. The Phillies could procure a better option at the end of the spring, when teams trim their rosters.

Abreu's 2,437 career hits and stellar .396 on-base percentage were not appealing enough to clubs last spring. Velandia said he understood the primary flaw, Abreu's age, but maintained that two months of scouting Abreu in Venezuela provided contrary evidence.

"He was better than the league at that point," Velandia said. "During the playoffs, he was definitely on a different level. He was hungry. He was trying to get back in the game."

Abreu played nine seasons (1998-2006) with the Phillies and is one of the franchise's all-time best at reaching base, a skill the Phillies lineup lacked in 2013. His .416 on-base percentage ranks fourth in team history. He is fourth in doubles (348), ninth in runs scored (891), eighth in total bases (2,491), seventh in stolen bases (254), and second in walks (947).

But this is a new job for Abreu, who logged 106 career pinch-hit appearances during his 17 major-league seasons. Sandberg would not say how many productive spring at-bats will convince him of Abreu's value. He envisions a test of Abreu's pinch-hitting ability.

"It's not a problem for me," Abreu said.

Abreu hit the first home run at Citizens Bank Park. He won the home-run derby in 2005. But the Phillies did not reach their great heights until after Abreu was traded in 2006 to the Yankees. Abreu witnessed the infant stages of the franchise's best period only to miss the chance at his first World Series ring.

"But it was something you enjoy, you feel happy," Abreu said. "Even though you weren't there, you feel a part of the team for a long time and you know how they got there."

These days, the expectations for both player and team, are diminished. Abreu, the oldest man in a clubhouse teeming with veterans, smiles wide:

"I'm going to enjoy this like . . . you don't have any idea."


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

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