Is Jose Dariel Abreu MLB's next Cuban sensation? Abreu, who turns 27 in January, defected from Cuba in August and is now free to sign with any team. He has a good chance to sign the largest contract ever for a Cuban player, topping Yasiel Puig's seven-year, $42MM deal. Every team had some kind of scouting presence at Abreu's early October showcase, reported Baseball America's Ben Badler.
Abreu put up huge numbers in Cuba's Serie Nacional as well as in international tournaments. His calling card is power, prompting Athletics assistant GM David Forst to say to Grantland's Jonah Keri in February 2012, "There are legitimate comparisons to Ryan Howard." Badler elaborated in August this year, "Abreu is a physically imposing righthanded hitter with tremendous raw power to all fields." In an ESPN article, former GM Jim Bowden gave Abreu a 70 hit tool and 70 for power on the scouting scale, after talking to "a few execs and scouts who have seen him play." One scout told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick Abreu has "monstrous power." Many different reports suggest Abreu could hit 30 home runs for an MLB team right away, a level no free agent reached in 2013. Given the scouting grade on his power, it seems possible Abreu could reach 40 in a season at some point during his contract.
Since Abreu will play in 2014 at age 27, he's younger than every significant free agent hitter. A six-year deal could still catch a large portion of his prime, which is unlikely to be the case with any other free agent.
If they reach the open market, many of the top free agent power bats have a good chance of requiring the sacrifice of a draft pick to sign: Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran, Mike Napoli, Kendrys Morales, Shin-Soo Choo, and Brian McCann. Abreu will not require the loss of a draft pick.
If Abreu has a few vintage Ryan Howard or David Ortiz-caliber seasons during his contract, he should easily be worth $50-60MM, and could provide an excellent return on investment. MLB executives are drooling at the thought. There have been some less-than-glowing reports about Abreu's overall hitting ability, however.
Abreu's bat speed was questioned in a pair of excellent reports from Badler and Crasnick, and there are multiple scouts who feel he will struggle against hard fastballs inside. Crasnick talked to a scout who described Abreu as a less-athletic Dayan Viciedo, a player with a .264/.306/.432 line in over 1,200 big league plate appearances. In sum, Viciedo has been about replacement level for his career. The scout felt that Abreu has more power than Kendrys Morales, but is a worse hitter. There are few questions about Abreu's power, but will he be able to hit for average or draw a walk? Badler has noted that scouts and teams have extensive history watching Abreu, but based on reports, it's unclear whether they project him over or under Morales' .333 career OBP.
Reports vary on Abreu's ability to contribute beyond his bat. One scout told Crasnick Abreu is "all bat," an Edgar Martinez type, while another felt he could be a solid first baseman. The bar is raised for a bat-only player, and it's certainly possible to hit 25-30 home runs and still be replacement level, as Raul Ibanez did this year. As far as young DHs go, Billy Butler has a .298/.364/.459 line in seven seasons, yet has never had a season in which he was worth three wins above replacement. Still, if Abreu settles in as a two-win player, he'll be worth a $10MM salary.
At 6'2" and 250 pounds, Abreu is not nearly the athlete Yasiel Puig or Yoenis Cespedes is, though Crasnick says Abreu has ramped up his conditioning of late. He's still likely to be a negative in baserunning.
Abreu is married and has a son, and I've heard he is a relatively quiet player who takes a professional approach to his job. Abreu is more grounded than Puig and is considered a "good kid" in scouting circles, according to Crasnick. Abreu's good friend Henry Urrutia, an outfielder for the Orioles, told MLB.com's Jesse Sanchez, "He's a humble man and he comes from a rural area of hard-working people." Abreu has a "fun-loving personality," heard MLB.com's Joe Frisaro.
The top end of the free agent market for first basemen includes Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales, both of whom seem likely to come with a draft pick cost attached. Badler talked to scouts who preferred Napoli to Abreu, but it's far from a slam dunk. Though Abreu has been scouted extensively, I still believe some teams will be seduced by the allure of the unknown, as it's easier to dream about Abreu hitting 40 home runs than Napoli or Morales, partially because Abreu has never played in the Majors.
Unlike typical free agents, Abreu is free to sign now and already held a showcase, so rumors are plentiful. The Marlins, Red Sox, White Sox, Rangers, Giants, Pirates, Orioles, and Mets have been linked to Abreu to varying degrees, and Badler says the first five teams had the strongest presence at his showcase in the Dominican Republic. Abreu's market is not limited to win-now teams, given his age. The Marlins, in particular, are "all-in" on Abreu, wrote MLB.com's Joe Frisaro in early October. They sent GM Dan Jennings to his showcase, and already have two of Abreu's countrymen on the roster in Jose Fernandez and Adeiny Hechavarria.
Predicting Abreu's contract is particularly difficult without knowing the player's goals. Cespedes made a point of limiting his term to four years, to allow a quick path back to free agency. Puig maximized his total dollars by taking a seven-year deal, a contract few saw coming in advance. Napoli has his share of drawbacks, yet I've projected a three-year, $42MM contract. Given that Abreu is more than five years younger, won't cost a draft pick, and may have more power, an average annual value of $10MM or less may be a bargain. $60MM over six years appears to be Abreu's ceiling. Ultimately I find the oft-cited six-year, $54MM prediction to be the best bet.