Baseball Aficionada: Jose Abreu Hits Market At Perfect Time

by Jon Erkkila | Posted on Thursday, August 15th, 2013
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Jose Abreu

It’s a good time to be Jose Abreu.

Timing. Timing is everything. If you happen to be a slugging first-baseman on the island of Cuba that plays for relative peanuts, it has to be very interesting to hear of the exploits of former countrymen Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, and Aroldis Chapman among others. The rash of Cubans achieving quick success is setting up a pipeline of money for any Cuban player with a high skill level. Cubans are hot commodities. Timing. Let us introduce you to the next one…

It seems the only thing missing now is a cheesy nickname using the Cuban Missile Crisis or Cuban cigars to describe the upcoming race to sign the next big talent to defect from Cuba…Jose Dariel Abreu.

Word has hit the hardcore baseball community by storm lately that the slugging first-baseman has sought his freedom from the communist regime in Cuba to pursue his fortune in MLB. The big right-handed hitter is currently in Haiti with many feeling he’ll establish residency in the Dominican Republic and then look to gain clearance from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to look for employment in the United States.

Once Abreu has OFAC’s permission he’ll be free to negotiate a deal on the open market, perhaps as soon as this off-season, and look to exploit baseball’s current loophole that allows international free agents over the age of 23 to cash in substantially over younger amateurs entering into agreements with MLB organizations.

As many know, the system has changed over the last few years. The MLB Draft, which covers players from North America and Puerto Rico, now has a cap on signing bonuses and slotted numbers for signing which restrict many amateurs from cashing in initially. Last year MLB also instituted a spending cap on international free agents under age 23 which has severely limited what clubs can spend on teens from the Caribbean and other parts of the world.

While some of this “saved” money probably remains in the pockets of MLB owners, some of the cash also goes to whatever talented players can accept it. Lately that’s been Cuban born players over the age of 23. They aren’t subject to any limit and if they can whip up a feeding frenzy for their services, or convince one club to blow away the competition like the Dodgers did for Puig, the conditions are ripe to cash in.

Yoenis Cespedes may be having a down year compared to his solid debut season in 2012 when he helped lead the Oakland Athletics to a surprise AL West title but Cespedes exceeded most expectations. When the A’s stunned many observers by inking Cespedes to a 4-yr/$36M deal there were many who thought Billy Beane was crazy (not the first time for Mr. Beane!). However it quickly became evident that Cespedes belonged. The power/speed combination allowed him to absolutely destroy some baseballs with his truly frightening blasts and swipe some bases. Cespedes was a “must watch” on MLB.tv for much of that summer. The deal looks like a pretty fair bargain for the A’s now. Winning the Home Run Derby in New York only added to the legend.

But if Cespedes created a stir…Yasiel Puig created a tsunami. Last season the Dodgers simply flexed their new financial muscle by deciding they had to get a young talent like Puig and ponied up a 6-yr/$42M commitment that few clubs likely even approached by half. Many thought this was the Dodgers being drunk on money and throwing it around like Michael Irvin at the Palomino Club. Then suddenly this summer the Puig-quake rocked Los Angeles like nothing probably has since Fernando-Mania back in the 80’s. Puig hit the ground fast…hitting everything (typically in the “clutch”) and making plays in the outfield with his arm and legs. He did this right as the Dodgers went on a historic roll as a team surging from a terrible 30-42 start into first place here in August. Puig e has rightfully gotten a solid share of the credit for the team’s turnaround. (yes, Hanley Ramirez, Kenley Jansen, and Clayton Kershaw are important too!) It took no time flat for Puig’s name to get mentioned among the best and the brightest of young talent in MLB. Whether he belongs to in the discussion with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will be determined over time…but all signs indicate he might be for real. He’s a hot commodity and the Dodgers marketing machine has kicked into high gear to milk every dime out of the hype. Puig’s deal? A bargain. He’s already putting butts in seats with his exploits and for $7M/year, every club in baseball would sign up for that now. The Dodgers get credit for taking the plunge.

Puig and Cespedes have put Abreu in the catbird seat to score a huge deal. Numbers over $50M have already been floated in many quarters…such as ESPN’s Jim Bowden guessing that at 6-yr/$54M deal might be out there for a slugger like Abreu. The next question is…..”can Abreu play?” The question after that is….”Does it matter?” Because the conditions are such that he’s going to get his cash.

It’s always a challenge to get a good extended look at Cuban players. They play and live in a remote closed off society. It’s easy to see the stats but not always easy to see the player much less meet the guy to get a feel for how he ticks. What we know is that in Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top league, the 26-yr old Abreu dominates to silly levels. “Video game numbers” is overused but it describes Abreu’s numbers pretty accurately. OBP’s over .500, 37 Homers in 90-game seasons, and striking out less than he walks. A small sample from the World Baseball Classic last Spring showed Abreu crush three homers in merely 25 at-bats with a slashline of .360/.385/.760.

Suffice it to say the numbers are fine. Physically he’s described as soft by some but also bigger than the 6’3”/240-lb he’s listed at. Most feel he is a first-base only kind of project if not a DH. His bat will be his calling card…specifically his ability to mash for power.

So….what teams will want a right-handed power bat that many feel will transition quickly into a major league lineup? Well…how about nearly everyone.

Another question…”what club’s can afford him?” The answer….all of them. The game is swimming in cash. There is not one team that can’t afford the deal if the number tops out around a $50M or $60M commitment. TV revenue is flowing and there appears to be no looming end to it. Revenue sharing also shows us that the supposed “have nots” have subsidy cash stream flowing from their big-market brethren.

Quite simply, any club that has a need for a power source at first base or DH should be in the bidding for Abreu if they are duly impressed at his upcoming workouts (there are not scheduled yet to my knowledge). The workouts should only confirm whatever the opinions of MLB front offices currently are about Abreu. He’s been on the radar for some time and surely most clubs have a dossier on him from his international appearances for Team Cuba.

National League outlook

Will the Dodgers spend again? They don’t have the DH obviously and they are committed to Adrian Gonzalez for a while. The Phillies are tied to the anchor of the Ryan Howard Deal….ouch. The Reds have Joey Votto under control for a long while. Paul Goldschmidt is mashing at first-base for the Diamondbacks and he’ll be fairly cheap for a while. Is he good enough to pass on Abreu? Hard to say. The Braves do seem to like young Freddie Freeman and may not be a fit either.

Otherwise, there really isn’t a National League team that should be “out” on Abreu if their scouts like him. The Marlins should be a natural fit and may look to rebuild their local image by committing to Abreu. The Pirates might see a power hitting first-baseman as the next piece to complete their solid young club. A team with a weak minor league system like Milwaukee and a big hole at first-base would seem like a natural fit to spend some money and create excitement in the land of cheese and beer.
There just aren’t many NL first sackers that are “too good” to think about automatically passing on Abreu out of hand with the exception of Votto.

American League suitors

A quick look around the league seems to indicate that perhaps as few as only one team should be out of the mix in the Junior Circuit either. The Royals have Eric Hosmer putting down roots at first base for the rest of the decade and Billy Butler is firmly entrenched at DH. It seems no other club lacks the ability to fit in the power hitter however.

The Tigers have Prince Fielder under contract for seven more seasons however DH Victor Martinez has only one season remaining on his deal after 2013. The Tigers will have a spot eventually for the bat if they wish to pay the freight. The Angels will likely have to move the increasingly immobile Albert Pujols to DH and this would open first-base for Abreu. We could go on down the list in the AL but the DH allows most teams the flexibility to add a talent like this even though he’s limited to one non-premium defensive position in all likelihood.

Even teams like Tampa, Minnesota, Houston, and several others that probably don’t pop to mind when talking about big signings, should be in the mix. Money is out there…and there are fewer places to spend it. Being aggressive in this Cuban player market has been shown to have worked in Oakland and Los Angeles. Expect the Rays and Twins to seriously look to make a move. The Rays look for value and may see a splash here as a sensible investment. The Twins were sneaky a few years ago and jumped in late to get Miguel Sano for solid sum. He’s now a top prospect. Putting a replacement in place for Justin Morneau should fit with Morneau’s money going off the books. Abreu being there when Sano and Byron Buxton arrive should be the core of an exciting lineup with Joe Mauer.

Sit back and watch the fireworks.

It’s good to be Jose Abreu right now. Conditions he had nothing to do with have conspired to create the perfect environment for him to hit the market. Free agency in MLB is looking less and less talent filled as teams lock up their young players so teams can’t sign very many big ticket items on that market. The Draft has been limited. International signing bonuses for youngsters is limited. Yet money is rolling into MLB coffers looking to be spent. While all this is happening Cespedes, Puig, Chapman, and others are making it look easy to jump in and sign a Cuban player and reap the quick rewards.

It almost seems like we are at the point where, ultimately, it won’t matter how well Abreu can play…he’s going to get paid. He has power potential and the momentum of his Cuban colleagues on his side. Teams will pay for the chance to get the power bonanza or the risk of a pricy bust. “Power” is the coveted asset he brings to the table plus he is in the prime years of what should be his physical peak. It’s just a matter of who wants to pay the most.

 

 

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Jon Erkkila
About the Author

Jon Erkkila is a native of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and a lifelong Detroit Tigers fan. Currently living in MLB Blackout Hell, otherwise known as Iowa. Follow him on twitter @yooper_ia







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