Jose Abreu Has a Shot at Stardom, and Failure


The expectations will be soon to arise, the comparisons will quickly sprout; his predecessors simply have not made it easy for him. They have turned Cuba into a mystical baseball factory whose very smoke is infused with the blood of all stars. Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig are not just phenoms, but sensations, the former bursting out with a twenty minute promotional video showcasing superhuman athleticism, the latter with two home runs and a 300 foot, game ending outfield assist in his first two major league games. So when it was reported Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu had defected to Haiti and would soon showcase for major league teams, the hype was already set.

Standing an imposing 6’4 and 250 pounds, the 26 year old Abreu exudes power, setting a Cuban baseball home run record in 2011 with 33 home runs in only 212 at bats, which he then followed up with 35 bombs the in 2012. This, coupled with sky-high batting averages of .453 and .394, led to Ruthian slugging percentages of .986 and .837. By comparison, Yasiel Puig hit “only” .330 with 17 home runs in his lone professional season in Cuba while Yoenis Cespedes was not able to break 23 homers until his final Cuban season.

Aug 17, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Puig, 26, has set a precedent of succes for Cuban players

Jonah Keri, over on Grantland, took the liberty of plugging Abreu’s numbers into an equivalency calculator (EQA) devised by baseball prospectus. The calculator takes a hitters collective numbers –  average, OBP, home runs, etc – and compares them to their league’s norms, creating a stat that can compare hitters across leagues. A .260 EQA is average, .300 good, .350 MVP quality, and .400 is reserved for players named Bonds and Cabrera. By Keri’s calculation, Abeu posted a .396 EQA in the year before he broke the home run record. Assuming the Cuban league is A-ball level (a reasonable assumption), Abreu’s 2011 season was far superior to that of Miguel Cabrera or any other player in major league baseball.

There’s a reason, however, that teams are not already bidding tens of millions of dollars for the young first baseman. For starters, Abreu’s exact location is not yet known and he cannot enter free agency until he establishes legal residence in a new country and gets cleared by both Major League Baseball and The US Office of Foreign Assets Control, a process that could take months. More importantly, though, is that teams simply don’t know very much about Abreu. Attempting to scout players in Cuba is virtually impossible, so all scouting reports are limited to international play, leading to very small, and often misleading, sample sizes. Ben Cherington put it plain and simple in an interview on WEEI radio, stating that the Red Sox, “simply don’t know him well enough yet.”

Despite Jose’s behemoth statistics, what limited scouting there is has not been entirely positive. Unlike Cespedes and Puig, Abreu is not a physical specimen, and don’t expect the unfettered speed, flexing muscles and inhuman ab routines that Cespedes brought with him, or the cannon that Puig wheres on his right arm. Scouts grade the slow footed Abreu as a poor defensive first baseman at best, and there’s a good chance he profiles more as a designated hitter if he signs with an American League club.

On the offensive side, his bat speed is only average, according to Baseball America, which could expose him to major league velocity fastballs on the inside half of the plate. His plate discipline is also suspect as while he showed the ability to recognize quality curve balls during the World Baseball Classic, he repeatedly chased sliders off the plate. His lack of patience and inability to turn on the ball has led scouts to doubt if his power will translate against higher competition. Still, others are undeterred, Abreu’s preternatural strength and sheer lack of athleticism reminding them of another player. When pressed for a projection on Abreu, Athletics Assistant GM was resolute, “there are legitimate comparisons to Ryan Howard.”

And that is why, despite his flaws and relative anonymity, some teams are already buzzing with interest. The Red Sox are certainly intrigued, viewing Abreu as a potential replacement for free-agent-to-be Mike Napoli, and, according to Roch Kubatko of MASN, the Orioles, who have been scouting Abreu for the past year, are excited by the first baseman’s “monster power.” With six time all star first baseman, Paul Konerko, aging and liable to leave for free agency after the season, the White Sox will also be in the mix,  announcing that they will be in attendance at Abreu’s showcase in September. The Rangers, Mets, and Pirates also have holes at first and could be interested, Matt Sullivan of MLB Daily Dish reports.

We won’t have a clear idea of just how much Abreu will demand on the open market until the upcoming showcase, but early guesses have been astronomical. With his stats so much greater than already handsomely paid Cuban stars, Puig and Cespedes, many expect Abreu to exceed Puig’s 7 year, 42 million dollar contract, the current record for an international player outside of Japan. Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports pegged his future contract as likely worth over 60 million and ESPN’s Jim Bowden was only slightly more conservative, putting the number at 50 million. For a player who’s outhit all of his predecessors and who’s being compared to two time home run king, Ryan Howard, who recently signed a contract for 125 million, those guesses are not unreasonable.

Thanks for reading! Be sure to follow@Gradingthecurve on Twitter and and Like Grading On The Curve’s Facebook page to keep up with the latest prospect news, rumors, and opinion.