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12/30/09 10:00 AM EST

Abreu adds MiLBY to lengthy resume

Veteran reliever enjoys strong season as Durham's closer

It's been a long, winding road of a baseball career for pitcher Winston Abreu.

It started as a 16-year-old signee of the Atlanta Braves out of the Dominican Republic, back in 1993. It's included time with nine organizations as well as a year in Japan (2008). There were seven summers with the Braves, but only one full year above A-ball. There was a missed season, 2003, because of injuries and an MLB debut in 2006, at the ripe old age of 29.

He's had a few more big-league stints along the way, without too much success. Yet he's come back year after year, continuing to pursue the dream. In 2009, that led him to the Tampa Bay Rays system, and the outstanding year he had for Durham makes him the MiLBY winner for Triple-A Reliever of the Year.

The 32-year-old went 3-1 with a 1.94 ERA and 15 saves in 37 games for Durham. He gave up just 23 hits over 51 innings for a ridiculous .133 batting average against while walking only 16 and striking out 77. He played a big part in helping the Bulls reach the International League playoffs, then saved four games in six scoreless outings to get them to the Triple-A National Championship Game.

"He was one of the reasons we got where we got," Durham manager Charlie Montoyo said. "If we had the lead in the ninth inning, it was over, so it made it easy for me. He was awesome."

Of course, nothing has come easy for Abreu in his pro career, and the end of 2009 was no different. During the playoffs against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he came in to close a game and couldn't really feel the ball. He took it anyway and somehow managed to get the job done. He was diagnosed with an aneurysm in his pitching arm and wasn't available in the championship game as a result.

That's the kind of guy he is," Montoyo said, adding that he's rehabbing and should be fine for Spring Training in 2010. "But thank God it happened then, because that's how we found out what he had. You could tell he wasn't the same in the playoffs. He did the job but not as effectively as he had been with his control."

That he even spent the season with the Rays is somewhat surprising, though given the twists Abreu has experienced throughout his 16 years in pro ball, perhaps it shouldn't be. He came back from Japan after the 2008 season and signed a Minor League contract with Tampa last February. He pitched so well over the course of the first couple of months, he got called up in June.

"We liked the reports and we needed help in the bullpen," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said about signing Abreu. "Though he didn't make the Major League club, from day one he dominated the International League. We needed some help in the Durham bullpen and thought he could be big league insurance. And man, did he dominate. He throws a plus fastball, a hard slider and has a good arm. He likes to compete and certainly proved he was a good fit."

The Indians thought he might be a good fit, too. So when the Rays designated Abreu for assignment a few weeks later, Cleveland arranged to trade for the veteran. He appeared in three games for the Indians, including one that saw him get ejected and get a three-game suspension for hitting a player in what appeared to be payback.

Eventually, the Indians designated Abreu for assignment. He cleared waivers and signed back with -- you guessed it -- the Rays. He didn't make it up to Tampa, but there's no question the folks in Durham were glad to see him back. And the organization liked him enough to make sure he'd be back in 2010.

"I am so glad he got some big league time. I hope he gets more big league time," Montoyo said. "It's funny because someone can be so dominant at Triple-A and you think they'd be OK in the big leagues. I think he just hasn't gotten enough of a chance there yet. He deserves another chance, I know that for sure.

"He's a good pitcher and a great kid. He's one of my favorites. I could talk about him all day. He's the first guy at the clubhouse every day working out, one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. Sometimes I have to tell him to slow down, it's a long season, but he says 'This is just how I am.'"

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.