Major League Baseball and the U.S. government have given Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu the green light to sign.
International scouts already have formed strong opinions about Abreu, who has been one of the most heavily-scouted Cuban players in recent years, with nearly 300 plate appearances outside of Cuba the last three years, plus ample video and performance data from playing in Serie Nacional.
General managers and assistant GMs may need to be more comfortable with Abreu, who has held private workouts for teams at their Dominican academies. Abreu also has open showcases at the Yankees’ Dominican academy today and tomorrow, but given the extensive history with Abreu, these aren’t likely to move the needle much.
Abreu, 26, will benefit from a weak free agent class at first base, headed by Boston’s Mike Napoli and Seattle’s Kendrys Morales, as well as a trend of teams locking up their young stars to long-term extensions that’s thinned free agency in general. And while a team that signs Shin-Soo Choo or Robinson Cano would have to surrender a draft pick (and the bonus pool space that comes with it), well, obviously there’s no draft pick compensation going back to Cienfuegos when a team signs Abreu.
While Abreu dominated the Cuban league, scouts are mixed on whether his skill set will translate against major league pitching. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, he’s a righthanded hitter with plus-plus raw power who can hit soft stuff in the strike zone, but he has a tendency to chase hard breaking pitches off the plate. Some scouts are concerned about his bat speed and the way he cuts himself off with his swing, particularly coming off a World Baseball Classic in which he looked vulnerable against decent fastballs on the inner third. Some scouts said they would rather have Napoli than Abreu.
Abreu’s biggest advocates might come not from the scouting community but from ownership and the analytics people within baseball operations. Owners have seen the success that Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig have had and seem eager not to miss on a Cuban player who could provide an immediate impact, even if their own scouts have reservations about Abreu.
A general manager who weighs performance data and his analysts’ statistical translations from foreign leagues more heavily into his decision-making process might be more inclined to pursue Abreu given his lofty track record in Cuba. The fact that data exists only on players going from Serie Nacional to MLB and not the other way around (unlike with MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan), however, is among the major caveats with those statistical equivalencies.
Whoever signs Abreu will almost certainly have him on their Opening Day roster, so unlike with a prospect such as Jorge Soler, Abreu’s market will be limited by teams with a need at first base or DH. So even if the Reds think Abreu is the real deal, the presence of Joey Votto means they’re not going to be involved. That doesn’t preclude a team from being creative by signing Abreu and trading away its current first baseman, and as the Tigers showed when they signed Prince Fielder despite having Miguel Cabrera at first base and Victor Martinez at DH, there’s always room for a surprise.
As a policy matter, we’re not going to speculate about Abreu’s price tag. But based on all the evidence available, including discussions with international sources, these are the five teams that would make the most sense for Abreu.
5. Chicago White Sox
Abreu is the type of physical power hitter the White Sox scouts have coveted, whether it’s Courtney Hawkins, Keon Barnum, Jared Mitchell and Trayce Thompson in the draft, Avisail Garcia and Brandon Jacobs through trades or 17-year-old Dominican outfielder Micker Zapata in international free agency. Those players also stood out for their athleticism, however, which is something Abreu doesn’t bring.
Not only do the White Sox have a history of signing prominent Cuban players like Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo, but special assistant Marco Paddy, who runs the organization’s international scouting after previously doing so for Toronto, signed Cuban shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from Abreu’s agency, Praver Shapiro Sports Management, for a $10 million big league deal.
The White Sox are coming off a disastrous season in which they ranked 29th in baseball runs scored. Spending big on free agents might not look the way to go for a team that isn’t close to contention, but Abreu is in his prime and, if they believe in his talent, is a player who could help them by the time they’re ready to make a postseason run.
4. Washington Nationals
Even though the Nationals were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball, they still finished with 86 wins and don’t have many glaring holes. The starting rotation led by Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann is strong. Six position players posted a Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 2.0 or better, according to Baseball-Reference, and one of the two everyday players who didn’t hit that mark is 23-year-old Anthony Rendon, who has breakout potential at second base.
One area where the Nationals could upgrade is first base. Washington has Adam LaRoche under contract for $12 million next season with a mutual $15 million option for 2015 (with a $2 million buyout). LaRoche will be 34 next season and is coming off a down year in which he hit .237/.332/.403 in 152 games.
At some point the Nationals will also have to wrestle with whether to move Ryan Zimmerman to first base, as the former Gold Glover has dealt with declining range and throwing issues. Zimmerman turned in an Ultimate Zone Rating of -14, according to Fangraphs, but by most metrics he’s still an above-average overall player.
The Nationals’ front office has a strong blend of scouting and analytics. Their biggest international signing since the Esmailyn Gonzalez scandal was Cuban righthander Yunesky Maya, who was also represented by Praver Shapiro Sports Management, so there’s a relationship there. With the Nationals likely to be in playoff contention next year, Abreu could be a fit.
3. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are one of the most intriguing potential destinations for Abreu. The organization has a heavily analytical front office and some of the savviest international scouts in the business. The international department has helped infuse the organization with plenty of talent, including Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Luis Heredia and Harold Ramirez, among others. The Pirates haven’t signed any high-profile Cuban players, but their scouts have signed Cubans in the past and they were in on Dayan Viciedo, another power hitter out of Cuba.
Typically the Pirates aren’t a team that springs for big-name free agents, but that might make Abreu an even more appealing option since clubs view Abreu as a riskier bet compared to a player with major league experience. With a potential bump in revenue coming from a postseason berth and their first winning season in 20 years, the Pirates could have more financial flexibility to pursue free agents in the offseason.
There aren’t too many areas where the Pirates will have to go outside the organization to upgrade next season. At some point, the Pirates could plug Polanco in right field, with Andrew Lambo another option. Their already strong rotation will get a full season out of Gerrit Cole, while righthander Jameson Taillon should make his major league debut next year.
One area they can upgrade is first base. The Pirates already recognized a need at first base when they traded for Justin Morneau on Aug. 31 and made him their everyday first baseman. But not only does Morneau come with concerns over both his health and performance, he’s a also free agent when the season’s over and turns 33 in May.
Before Morneau arrived, the Pirates went with a platoon of Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones. They’re both in their 30s with two more years of arbitration before free agency, but neither is a long-term solution and the Pirates don’t have a real option at first base ready on the farm. If the Pirates think highly of Abreu, he certainly would be a fit.
2. Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are a large-revenue team with a history of paying big bucks in the international market, both for July 2 prospects and foreign professionals like Daisuke Matsuzaka. They have signed several Cuban players, including shortstop Jose Iglesias four years ago when he was 19, with a front office well versed in analytics.
Boston could also have a hole at first base next year depending on what happens with Napoli in the offseason. Napoli is coming off a strong year, so the easiest course for the Red Sox might be to re-sign him to a multi-year contract. But Napoli turns 32 next season, so if the Red Sox are interested in Abreu—some sources believe they are—giving a multi-year deal to a player in his mid-20s might be more appealing than locking up a player into his mid-30s.
1. Texas Rangers
Many international sources believe the Rangers have the inside edge if they want to sign Abreu. And several sources believe the Rangers do have strong interest in adding him to their organization. All of the stars seem to be aligned—whether it’s by coincidence or design—for the Rangers.
Baseball America reported on Aug. 12 that Abreu had left Cuba after word had spread in the days before that he had left the island. Abreu’s departure came less than two weeks after the Rangers didn’t land an impact bat at the trade line and after the Rangers learned that Nelson Cruz, a free agent after this year, would be accepting a 50-game suspension that would cost him the rest of the season. On Aug. 5, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that the Rangers said it would be difficult for them to re-sign Cruz now that he accepted his suspension.
Texas added Alex Rios from the White Sox on Aug. 9 and will have him under contract for one more season. The Rangers have a surplus of middle infield talent with Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, Jurickson Profar and second baseman Rougned Odor on the way, but they need an offensive upgrade at first base, DH and a corner outfield spot. The Rangers’ desire to add a big righthanded bat—Giancarlo Stanton, Justin Upton, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista—is no secret.
First base is an especially pressing need for the Rangers, whose collective OPS from the first base spot this year ranks 26th in all of baseball. Incumbent 27-year-old first baseman Mitch Moreland hit just .231/.299/.438 this season and is barely above a replacement-level player. There’s little immediate help on the way at first base or even an outfield corner spot for the Rangers, whose farm system has thinned, partly due to trades, partly because players like Profar, Leonys Martin and Martin Perez are now with the big league club.
The Rangers also have perhaps the closest relationship with Praver Shapiro Sports Management, which represented Dominican outfielder Jairo Beras (a controversial $4.5 million signing in 2012) and Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin, who signed a major league contract for five years, $15.6 million in May 2011.
Between the timing of Abreu’s departure, the Rangers’ need for a first baseman, their aggressive nature on the international market, their relationship with Abreu’s agency and what’s believed to be an interest in the player, if the Rangers truly want Abreu, the evidence suggests they have the inside track.