Cuban Star Jose Abreu Leaves Cuba

Editor’s note: Ben Badler and John Manuel discussed Abreu and other Cuban defectors more in a podcast recorded Monday, Aug. 12, downloadable here or via iTunes.

Jose Abreu, the premier offensive player in Cuba, has left the island and will try to sign with a major league team, Baseball America has learned.

Abreu, a 26-year-old first baseman, has played professionally in Cuba since the 2003-04 season, so he will be able to sign as a free agent exempt from the international signing bonus pools, with a massive major league contract likely headed his way.

That process could still take several months. Abreu will have to establish residency in another country, have Major League Baseball declare him a free agent and the U.S. government’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) clear him to sign, but interest in Abreu should be fierce and should have a major impact on this offseason’s free agent market.

At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Abreu is a physically imposing righthanded hitter with tremendous raw power to all fields, with astounding numbers in Cuba the last several years. He also ranked as the No. 4 prospect among players in the 2013 World Baseball Classic not already signed by an MLB organization.

This year in a Serie Nacional season interrupted by the World Baseball Classic, Abreu hit .382/.535/.735 with 13 home runs, 37 walks and 21 strikeouts in 42 games playing for Cienfuegos. Abreu led Cuba in home runs, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS while ranking second in batting average to earn all-star honors.

During the 2011-12 season, Abreu hit .394/.542/.837 with 35 home runs, 75 walks and 40 strikeouts in 71 games. Abreu led Serie Nacional in batting, OBP (by 63 points over Alfredo Despaigne), slugging (by 142 points over Despaigne) and OPS. Abreu was an all-star and ranked second in homers--only one behind Despaigne despite having 63 fewer plate appearances--although Despaigne still captured the MVP.

In 2010-11, Abreu won the MVP award after having one of the greatest seasons in Cuban history, despite missing 23 games due to bursitis in his shoulder. Abreu batted .453/.597/.986 in 293 plate appearances, blasting 33 home runs with 58 walks and 32 strikeouts. He led Cuba in batting average, OBP, slugging and OPS. He tied Yoenis Cespedes, now with the Athletics, for the league lead in home runs despite stepping to the plate 122 fewer times.

Abreu’s MVP season came one year after he finished third in MVP voting behind Despaigne and third baseman Yulieski Gourriel. Abreu batted .399/.555/.822 with 30 home runs, 74 walks and 49 strikeouts in 82 games that season to lead Cuba in OBP, slugging and OPS while ranking second in batting average and finishing one home run shy of Despaigne for the league lead in homers.

Much like they were with Cespedes, scouts are extremely familiar with Abreu, having followed him while he played for Cuba’s top national team at several international tournaments over the last few years. International scouts’ most recent look at Abreu came at the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam last month, although Abreu only played in the first two games of the tournament due to injury. Scouts saw more of Abreu in March at the World Baseball Classic, where he hit .360/.385/.760 with three home runs in 25 at-bats, numbers in line with his typical dominance during international play.

In the prime of his career, Abreu is certain to sign a major league contract, the only question is how high the dollars will get. While interest in Abreu will be strong among some teams, there’s expected to be a split camp, with some scouts not sold that his hitting will translate against major league pitching.

Abreu is an intelligent hitter without a lot of effort in in his swing and the power to hit 30-plus homers in a season. He has an unorthodox setup with a double toe tap in his stride, and some scouts consider his bat speed only fair, which they believe makes it hard for him to catch up to good velocity on the inner third of the plate.

At the WBC, Abreu showed he could handle curveballs in the strike zone but he was prone to chasing sliders off the plate, although that was a question mark on both Cespedes and Yasiel Puig when they arrived from Cuba as well. He’s limited athletically, but any team that signs Abreu will be banking on his bat and tremendous power profiling in the middle of the lineup.

The lack of first basemen on the free agent market--the best is Mike Napoli, who turns 32 in October--should only increase the demand for Abreu if he can become cleared to sign this offseason.