The Chicago White Sox have taken what they hope will be a huge step forward to getting back on track after a dismal 2013 season by signing high-profile Cuban slugger Jose Dariel Abreu to a record-setting contract.
According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, Abreu's deal with the White Sox will be for six years and $68 million:
Jose Abreu finalizing terms on six-year, $68M deal. Club expected to be #WhiteSox. Deal will be largest first-time contract for int’l player— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) October 18, 2013
That is a huge sum of money to invest in anyone, let alone a player with no Major League Baseball experience. Then again, the White Sox are no strangers to throwing money around if they think it will help them win. The latter part of that statement makes this a more puzzling move, because this team isn't going to win much over the next two seasons, attempting as they are to rebuild a depleted system that has been neglected for years.
There will also be a lot of pressure on Abreu to succeed due to what we have seen from recent foreign imports like Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Yu Darvish. And that's not to mention Cubs prospect Jorge Soler, whose tools are translating nicely to the U.S. and could make him an impact MLB player very soon.
If you just look at Abreu's stats in Cuba, they certainly stack up well with any of the recent high-profile foreign players who signed huge contracts. His 2010-11 season in the Cuban National League is as good as you will see:
Those are video-game numbers, though that is also not a proper way to measure what Abreu can do in MLB. Despite what players like Cespedes, Puig and Darvish did as rookies in the United States, Abreu can't and shouldn't be expected to have that kind of instant success.
First, it is important to remember that players like Puig are more often the exception than the rule. For every Puig or Cespedes, there are 10 Yuniesky Betancourts.
Numbers aren't what scouts and evaluators are looking at. Tools and baseball ability are what matter when signing a player and projecting them at the MLB level.
That isn't to say that the White Sox haven't done their homework, because when you make an investment like this, you are looking at anything and everything possible.
But a big difference between Abreu and a Cespedes or Puig is athleticism. You can look at Puig and see that he can be a game-changing talent because of his speed, arm strength and hitting ability. The same can be said for Cespedes.
Abreu isn't that kind of athlete. He is listed at 6'3" and 250 pounds, and it's not all muscle. There is some bulk in his body. He's also limited to first base, or possibly just DH, which puts all sorts of pressure on his bat in order to be even an average big leaguer.
Like Cespedes when he signed with Oakland, Abreu is 26 years old. (Abreu will play next season at age 27; his birthday is January 29, 1987.) He doesn't have time to hone his skills in the minors before the White Sox let him play everyday in the majors. There is a small window of opportunity to catch him at his absolute peak before the decline phase sets in.
Again, going back to the first-base issue, players who don't have elite athleticism are likely to fall off quicker than others. It's why you could sense that some teams feared giving Prince Fielder a long-term contract when he was a free agent two years ago.
Now, after teasing it earlier, we need to talk about Abreu's tools. I haven't seen enough of Abreu to offer a definitive opinion on what he can and can't do, or how well his game translates to MLB.
The most exposure I, like many others, had to Abreu was during this year's World Baseball Classic. He generated headlines after hitting a mammoth grand slam for Cuba against China, but I would like to point out two things that immediately jumped out to me about problems in that swing.
First, the swing mechanics. That power is beautiful to see and certainly a big reason why he got as much money as he did. Right-handed power is a luxury that few teams have.
However, if you notice before the actual swing, Abreu uses a double-toe-tap load that will slow him down against MLB-quality pitching. His bat speed is solid, but nothing special that makes you think he can consistently catch up to mid-90s velocity, let alone square it up if he does make contact.
Second, the pitch the Chinese pitcher throws is one that Abreu will never see in MLB. It's a 65 mph breaking ball that sits in the middle of the plate. That is the definition of a junk pitch. Credit Abreu for doing what he is supposed to do with that pitch, but MLB pitchers are never going to show him anything that sweet.
Without elite bat speed, not to mention an approach against quality off-speed stuff that we haven't seen because he hasn't faced it, MLB pitchers will find a way to get him out on the inner half or by throwing him breaking stuff down in the zone.
Diving a little deeper into scouting reports from people with more information on Abreu than I have, it seems like the slugger is more of a decent prospect than a star.
Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com wrote about Abreu and what scouts said about him back in September, with the overall consensus being mixed.
There were certainly individual elements of Abreu's game that the scouts quoted liked, notably the raw power. One scout was quoted in the article as saying it "compares favorably with Puig Cespedes and White Sox outfielder Dayan Viciedo."
What is Jose Abreu's MLB ceiling?
The key word there is "raw." Raw power is not what a player can do in a game, but what they can showcase in batting practice when they aren't being challenged by real pitching.
A number of minor leaguers have huge raw power that never translated to MLB because they didn't have the bat speed to catch velocity, or their approach was so bad that they didn't make enough contact for it to play. Ryan Sweeney immediately comes to mind.
Abreu is also a below-average runner and limited defender because of that lack of speed, which is why he plays first base.
Jim Bowden of ESPN.com (Insider subscription required), who has forgotten more about scouting and talent evaluation than I know, caused a stir when he graded Abreu's present hit and power tools at 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale.
To put that in perspective, that means Bowden believes Abreu could step into MLB today and hit .310 with 30-plus home runs. In other words, he will be the best right-handed power hitter in the game not named Miguel Cabrera.
I will go out on a (very short) limb to say that Abreu isn't going to be that kind of hitter, especially not right away.
Another factor to consider is the way players like Puig, Cespedes and Darvish have changed the international market over the last two years. Their instant success has undoubtedly puts teams on alert as they try to find the next great Cuban or Japanese player to bid on.
However, those players shouldn't be direct correlations for Abreu, because the way they play the game is completely different.
What players like Puig and Cespedes offer are various ways to impact a game. They can make throws from deep in the outfield to get a runner out at third base or steal a base to get in scoring position.
That's not a part of Abreu's game. He has to hit, and hit for power, to be a difference-maker for the White Sox.
I am not as bullish on Abreu's MLB prospects as the White Sox. They certainly know more about the player than I do, but based on what I have seen and the information out there, he is likely a player who can be good, not great.
If that's worth a $68 million investment for a franchise that does need to invest more in the draft and international markets, then the White Sox should be very happy.
But if they spent that much money hoping they have found a new franchise-type player like Puig or Darvish, the White Sox will be sorely disappointed.
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