October 18, 2013
Reportedly signed 1B-R Jose Daniel Abreu to a six-year deal worth $68 million. [10/17]
Over the past three offseasons, four free-agent first basemen have signed multi-year deals: Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Nick Swisher, and Adam LaRoche. The attribute linking the four together is power; excuse LaRoche's injury-shortened 2011, and each player averaged at least 25 home runs per season in the three years before signing. Power gets first basemen paid, and Abreu is no exception.
How much power are we talking about? Jason Parks threw a plus-plus grade on Abreu's raw strength, while giving him a 6 in usability. ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick, who talked to a number of scouts and talent evaluators about Abreu, echoed Parks' sentiment when he wrote that "the consensus is that he has the strength to hit 30 homers by accident." There are questions about whether Abreu's pop will translate. His bat speed has been criticized and he has a closed stride and double toe-tap, which means pitchers are likely to test him with velocity inside and breaking balls away. Yet 30-home run potential is nothing to sneeze at anymore—especially when confined in a package known for a smart approach at the plate. Ten first basemen homered 30 or more times back in 2003, just six did it in 2013. Times have changed.
Boy have they. Whatever stigma there might have been about Cuban players no longer exists. The recent successes of Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig have reassured teams that talented Cubans are not doomed against big-league pitching. But Abreu differs from those two in profile. He's not a tremendous athlete who can impact the game in the field and on the basepaths. The scouts who talked to Crasnick pegged him as a potentially serviceable first baseman, which isn't high praise. By the contract's end it's possible he's a designated hitter. Either way, Abreu has to hit—and hit a lot—to provide value.
And yet you can understand why Rick Hahn and the White Sox are taking the plunge. Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are talking retirement, Dayan Viciedo has failed to develop into a middle-of-the-order bat, and the farm system lacks no-doubt impact talent. Hahn has assembled a few interesting young pieces already, but his club ranked last in the AL in True Average last season and needs some thump. Whether Chicago is near contention or not, there's nothing wrong with adding talent. Besides, if Abreu works out and the White Sox remain in the dumps, then he becomes a useful trade chip.
Still, the money and term are the toughest parts to digest. One loose dollars-to-wins translation suggests Abreu will be worth the payday if he's a league-average player for the duration. But teams don't give league-average players six-year deals, for a reason. Even if Abreu is an average first basemen those factors come into play. This winter's first-base market is littered with choices that won't move the needle, so respect Chicago's willingness to gamble on the crop's potential difference maker—who, by the way, might be the youngest free agent available. That doesn't mean Abreu is ensured success; it does mean this is an interesting deal worth watching—if only to see if he is the best offensive weapon on the planet.