Has Jose Abreu Already Passed Up Yasiel Puig as MLB's Best Cuban Hitter?

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Has Jose Abreu Already Passed Up Yasiel Puig as MLB's Best Cuban Hitter?
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Remember when Yoenis Cespedes was going to be the next great power hitter in the major leagues after defecting from Cuba?

You certainly recall "The Showcase", Cespedes' promotional video that was released during the 2011-12 offseason just before he became eligible for free agency. How about all those Bo Jackson comparisons? Remember those? 

Of course you do, but admit that those recollections have faded considerably. 

While he's been a very productive hitter on one of the best teams in baseball—the 28-year-old has a career .800 OPS with 53 homers in 291 games for the Oakland A's, who signed him to a four-year, $36 million contract in February 2012—the Cespedes hype was so 2012.

Two season later, he is, arguably, the third best Cuban hitter in the majors.

Yasiel Puig, who signed a seven-year, $42 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers only four-and-a-half months after Cespedes signed with Oakland, easily surpassed him with his MVP-caliber performance last season and was all the rage entering 2014.

But there's a new kid on the block who, like Puig, is so much better than expected.

His name is Jose Abreu, and he leads the majors in home runs (12) and is second in runs batted in (34) behind Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton. A month into his major league career, the 27-year-old rookie looks to be even more advanced at the plate than Puig but with more raw power.

The Chicago White Sox signed Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal in late October. That's a higher annual salary than Cespedes or Puig received.

Abreu wasn't as highly touted a hitter as Cespedes or Puig and didn't offer plus potential at a corner outfield spot. He was, simply, less of a risk because of how well Cespedes and Puig have adapted to major league pitching.

After defecting from Cuba last August, scouting reports were mixed on the first baseman. The power potential, described as "monstrous" by one scout, was clear. There were a lot of questions, though, on whether he had the skills to succeed in the majors, as described in a profile by ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick last September.

But one thing is clear. No one thought he'd be this good of a hitter. And no one seems to be questioning whether this is just a fluky 32-game sample that will decline drastically as opposing teams figure him out.

Abreu appears to have a plan when he's at the plate, and he seems more than capable of making the proper adjustments to keep him on pace for the home run and RBI titles. Former Cy Young Award winner and Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who has allowed a homer and a single to the White Sox slugger while striking him out three times in six at-bats, is already a believer

"I don't think he's somebody that you look at and say, 'Oh, he just had a hot April,'" said Verlander, per USA Today's Jorge L. Ortiz. "He's extremely talented. You have to execute your pitches. Otherwise, he can hurt you at any time."

While it might be a bold statement to say that Abreu has already passed Puig as MLB's best Cuban hitter after 32 games, it certainly doesn't seem like too much of a stretch. After all, it didn't take long for Puig to jump past Cespedes

Here's a comparison of each player's first 32 MLB games. 

Abreu's 1st 32 MLB games
BA OBP SLG OPS AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K SB
.258 .319 .617 .936 128 22 33 8 1 12 34 9 35 0

*Via Baseball-Reference.com  

Puig's 1st 32 MLB games
BA OBP SLG OPS AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K SB
.409 .437 .677 1.114 127 25 52 8 1 8 19 5 31 5

*Via Baseball-Reference.com 

Abreu produced more homers and runs batted in, while Puig beat him in every other category. Both, however, made a huge impact during their first month in the big leagues.

Puig's mediocre BB/K rate may have been an indicator of future struggles at the time, but the fact that he hasn't slowed down much is a good sign that Abreu—a much more mature individual than Puig and a more finished product on the field—could also sustain his production despite a BB/K rate that has him on pace for 46 walks and 177 strikeouts.

And even though Abreu won't keep up with his current 61-homer pace, he's well ahead of Puig, who has just four homers on the season. And when it comes to perception, homers usually outweigh a lot of other numbers.  

Who will be considered the best Cuban hitter by season's end?

Submit Vote vote to see results

If both continue on their current paths—Puig has caught fire after a slow start, posting a 1.050 OPS with three homers, three doubles and three stolen bases over his past 14 games—I'd project each to finish the season with an OPS in the neighborhood of .900, with Puig's batting average and on-base percentage fueling his total and Abreu's homers balancing out a much lower batting average and on-base percentage

By season's end, who will be considered the "best" hitter—the one with a .250 batting average, .320 on-base percentage, 37 homers and 125 runs batted in, or the one with a .300 batting average, .385 on-base percentage, 23 homers, 78 runs batted in and 15 stolen bases?

 

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. All contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts

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