Betting Big on Bats: The Jose Abreu Quandary

According to multiple reports, the White Sox have agreed to terms with free agent first baseman Jose Abreu on a six year, $68 million contract. Abreu, who turns 27 in January, has been a star slugger in Serie Nacional, the premier baseball league in Cuba, and played for the Cuban team in the World Baseball Classic this past spring. The $68 million guarantee shows that Major League teams are beginning to put a little more faith in players from Cuba, as the big successes of Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig have likely instilled some confidence in players coming over without needing a long transition period.

However, there’s a pretty big difference between Puig, Cespedes, and Abreu: they were signed in part because of their athleticism. Cespedes was signed as a center fielder, and though Puig was reportedly out of shape when other teams scouted him, the Dodgers clearly saw the dynamic tools that allowed him to make a huge splash this summer. Both Puig and Cespedes had Major League skills that went beyond what they did at the plate, and didn’t necessarily have to develop into upper level sluggers in order to justify their paychecks.

Abreu is, by all reports, strictly a 1B/DH type, and comparisons to guys like Ryan Howard don’t exactly inspire confidence that he’s more 1B than DH. The entirety of Abreu’s value is likely going to come from how well he hits. And $70 million for a guy who has to hit in order to be a big leaguer seems like a bit of a gamble, given that hitting seems to be the single hardest thing to forecast.

Let’s take a look at the current crop of Major League first baseman, for example. From 2011-2013. From 2011-2013, here are the 15 1Bs by wRC+:

Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
Miguel Cabrera 2037 0.340 0.427 0.609 0.436 178
Joey Votto 1920 0.314 0.438 0.524 0.412 162
Prince Fielder 2094 0.297 0.396 0.515 0.388 146
Mike Napoli 1427 0.268 0.371 0.523 0.386 140
Allen Craig 1296 0.312 0.364 0.500 0.373 140
Paul Goldschmidt 1474 0.289 0.376 0.517 0.381 139
Edwin Encarnacion 1795 0.275 0.364 0.517 0.377 138
Chris Davis 1445 0.277 0.343 0.545 0.377 137
Albert Pujols 1764 0.283 0.348 0.505 0.361 132
Adrian Gonzalez 2040 0.311 0.366 0.491 0.367 132
Corey Hart 1173 0.277 0.344 0.509 0.367 130
Freddie Freeman 1884 0.287 0.361 0.468 0.359 129
Brandon Belt 1252 0.273 0.351 0.447 0.347 125
Nick Swisher 1893 0.259 0.360 0.448 0.353 122
Paul Konerko 1757 0.283 0.360 0.458 0.354 120

Cabrera was signed as a 16-year-old masher who scouts were convinced was going to hit, and he’s proven them right and then some. Prince Fielder, likewise, was drafted 7th overall despite being a bat-only player because the Brewers were convinced he was going to be an offensive force, and they were absolutely right in that regard. But the rest of the list? It reads mostly as a reminder of how hard scouting hitters can be.

Joey Votto was drafted as a catcher with questionable power. Mike Napoli was a fringe prospect who got to the big leagues because he could catch. Allen Craig was something of an after thought, a no-tools organizational player who forced his way to the big leagues by producing in the minors. Paul Goldschmidt was considered a fringe prospect with mediocre power who might be limited to the short half of a platoon. Even Adrian Gonzalez, who was taken #1 overall in the 2000 draft, was a bit of a signability pick, and he had made a name for himself with his glove as well.

Now, none of these guys were physically developed 26 year olds when they were being scouted, so comparing Abreu to guys who were offensive question marks as teenagers is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison. Perhaps it is easier for scouts to watch Abreu hit in workouts and project his offensive performance forward given that they don’t have to wonder how he’s going to develop. What they see now is what the White Sox are going to get, so it’s more of a matter of current evaluation rather than future projection.

But even with that variable removed from the picture, there does not appear to be a consensus that Abreu is absolutely going to hit. Ben Badler, who is as connected to the international aspects of the sport as anyone, included these paragraphs in his write-up on Abreu:

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.

There are few players in the world where the scouts are universally positive about their abilities, so the fact that there are detractors does not mean that Abreu is going to be a bust. The reaction to the Puig signing was strongly negative as well, and now that looks like one of the best signings any team has made in the last few years. Abreu may very well be one of the game’s premier hitters right now, needing only the chance to prove it on the game’s biggest stage.

But this is a big bet for a player with a very low floor. If Abreu doesn’t hit, he’s nothing. Unlike Puig, Cespedes, or Leonys Martin, there is no real path to value for Abreu outside of his hitting ability. In order to justify a $68 million commitment, Abreu is going to have to be one of the better hitters in baseball, pretty much from the first day he sees Major League pitching.

The uncertainty around any free agent signing is high. There’s added uncertainty when you’re bringing in a player from an international league, because the performance data simply isn’t as useful in projecting a player’s future value. And then, with Abreu, there’s another level of uncertainty because his entire value is wrapped up in the thing that is hardest to evaluate through scouting.

According to Ken Rosenthal, five teams all bid in the same range of around $65 million, so the White Sox aren’t out on a total limb here. However, they are the ones who ended up making the commitment, and they’re the ones who have to hope that Abreu’s performance from the Cuban league translates to Major League Baseball. For an organization badly in need of a talent infusion, perhaps this is the best way to invest in their future and get the team back on its feet. It seems like a pretty big gamble, though.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


126 Responses to “Betting Big on Bats: The Jose Abreu Quandary”

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  1. Dan says:

    Good article Dave – I agree with almost all of it. One nitpicky thing though:
    “Even Adrian Gonzalez, who was taken #1 overall in the 2000 draft, was a bit of a signability pick, and he had made a name for himself with his glove as well.”

    This feels more like trying to fit the data to the narrative than the other way around. Gonzalez might not have been the consensus top guy, but you don’t take a 1B that high unless you’re very confident he can mash.

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    • walt526 says:

      I remember that the comparison that was made when Gonzalez was drafted that he projected to be similar to Mark Grace: great defense, very good contact hitter with doubles power. Becoming an elite offensive first baseman with 30+ HR seasons was not what scouts expected him to be, which is why he was with his third organization before his 25th birthday.

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    • jdbolick says:

      No, Dave is absolutely right. There was a lot of criticism of the Gonzalez pick at the time.

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    • JH says:

      Dave’s right. Gonzalez wasn’t a consensus top 10 who happened to go #1 (a la Matt Bush). He was more of a back-end 1st round type. Eric Hosmer was much more highly touted out of hs than Gonzalez was.

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    • E-Dub says:

      Ditto with the above. Much criticism of the Gonzalez pick at the time, with the defensive projection leavening the questions about the bat. Dave is dead on.

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    • Willy Mo Pena says:

      U GOT SCHOOLED, “DAN FROM STATE FARM”

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  2. Baltar says:

    I’m very surprised that the White Sox made this move. This team seems to be at a stage where they need to build up a core of good players to become competitive again rather than spend so much on a single player with considerable risk.

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    • GilaMonster says:

      I said the same think. They sold big at the trade deal line,Konerko is done,Dunn could be done. They have absolutely no farm. They need to pull a Astros/Cubs and tank for a few years. Trade Chris Sale for a cruise ship full of prospects before he gets injured. Signing a 27 year old 1st basemen isn’t going to help you contend much now with no-one around him. And it probably isn’t going to help you in 5 years.

      Why in baseball do teams hate the idea of tanking? It is accepted in basketball and football where you would rather be bad than mediocre forever. I know there is a lot of more risk, but you still need the payoff.

      Aging players and spending money can’t save you. Look at the Yankees. Without PEDs keeping aging players healthy and performing, there whole “sign everyone to a monster contract” approach isn’t sustainable for long term success.

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      • Pale Hose Kyle says:

        The Cubs have the luxury of tanking because they will make money anyway. There’s more elasticity to wins and revenue south of there.

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        • Spencer D says:

          That’s a an extremely important point. The Cubs have drawing power for reasons beyond being a winning team as evidenced by their 800,000 additional fans over a white sox team of similar quality team. One would expect, though, that the White sox might have many of these same features: History, Age, Market size. Maybe wrigley field is worth that much more. But for all intents and purposes the white sox are a Mid market team while the Cubs are a large market team.

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        • FoffTODD says:

          Don’t forget about the location of the stadiums. The White Sox have their stadium in one of the roughest, poor places in America.

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      • jdbolick says:

        Major league baseball teams hate tanking because a much higher percentage of their revenue comes from attendance versus TV than the NFL or NBA, and they have to sell 81 home games per season.

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      • Atreyu Jones says:

        Planning on tanking for 5 years is never a good strategy in baseball.

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      • Tim says:

        I would just like to say when people say the white sox should trade Chris sale. He’s signed long enough at a cheap enough rate that he could be around for the next contending white sox team at a VERY affordable rate.

        If abreu and Garcia can come close to their ceilings, this could get interesting.

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      • Shoewizard says:

        The reason teams don’t like to tank is because the amateur draft is such a crap shoot and it takes so long for draftees to make an impact.

        Nfl and Nba players taken in the first and second rounds are much more likely to make an impact in the first and second seasons after being drafted than mlb draftees.

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      • Luther says:

        What you’re missing is if Abreu develops to a 2-3+ war hitting 1b. His 10mill a year deal becomes a very tradeable asset if the the team is still looking at a rebuild in 2 years.

        If he doesn’t or if they don’t trade him. It’s not killing the books during rebuild years when you are carrying a lighter book.

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    • Atreyu Jones says:

      This move is an attempt to help build up a core of good players. It doesn’t prevent them from adding more guys.

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      • GilaMonster says:

        Who are the other “core guys”? Chris Sale and an aging Alexei Ramirez? All the other guys are barely above replacement level.

        I could understand you saying that if the Mets or the Mariners signed him. I don’t think any team is further from contention then the White Sox.

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        • Atreyu Jones says:

          If they are so far from contention, shouldn’t they be adding players?

          They need lots of players, signing Abreu doesn’t mean they have to stop now.

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        • James says:

          While signing Abreu doesn’t mean they have to stop now, with the current ownership’s outlook, it more than likely means they do stop now.

          Bottom line is no one would ever pay $70 million for the best hitting college 1B who’s just 21 or 22 and still projectable, so I don’t know how can justify it for someone who’s equally unproven at age 27.

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        • Atreyu Jones says:

          No one would pay this much for a college 1B because they are draft eligible (and possibly further away from the majors).

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        • Froglegs Jackson says:

          Jose Quintana finished 25th in fWAR among starters. If you prefer RA-9, he rates even better. I’d say he’s a core piece.

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        • JH says:

          The last two times a 1B was considered the best college bat were Pedro Alvarez and Mark Teixeira (both nominally drafted as 3Bs but universally considered 1Bs). Both had huge hype on draft day and either would have pulled a huge contract if they’d been free agents. Maybe not $68 million because there is a whole lot more money in baseball now than even 5 years ago, but certainly mid 8 figures.

          I don’t think people properly appreciate how much the draft keeps bonuses down. Stephen Strasberg might have been able to sign a $100 million contract if all 30 teams could have bid on him. Any comparison of Abreu’s contract to draft bonuses is apples and oranges.

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        • Marv T says:

          Jordan Danks!

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        • Hank says:

          People are also forgetting there is an opportunity cost to acquiring talent under the new CBA rules and players that fall outside the system (age23+ IFA guys) have a bit more value since you can no longer just sink that same money into the draft going overslot or in the ‘regular’ IFA market wihtout penalties.

          Not saying this justifies the deal but comparing him to a guy being drafted is overly simplistic.

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        • payroll says:

          Sale, Danks, Viciedo, Avisail, Alexei… They have some guys.

          People have called for the White Sox to rebuild for 20 years, and the White Sox have used international free agency to supplant the draft for nearly 20 years, winning more often than not.

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        • Hitterish says:

          U r wrong. Teams with no pitching are the ones farthest from the sun.The White Sox have good starters and are rumored to be looking to deal an arm for a bat. I would hope that bat is a 3B. Matt Davidson in Arizona or Cecchini of Boston might be had for a good arm and either would be an upgrade on the SouthSide. To me, the biggest key to their success is tied to the growth (or lack of it) of Dayan Viciedo and the return of their 2012 fielding prowess. Viciedo has to make a big step up from a below average mid-fifties RBI total to mid-80’s rbi In ’12, they were stellar in the field and a contender til a late fade; in ’13, they couldn’t catch a cold.

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    • Chris K says:

      Bit of an overstatement, no? They have a good, young one-two punch in Sale and Quintana, and Santiago/Johnson/Rienzo are all young and have plenty of potential. Hell, Danks looks ok and he’s still just 28. If they sign Floyd to a rehab minor league contract, they’ve got a cheap, decent rotation. Tether that with Garcia, De Aza, Viciedo (dude’s still just 24), Abreu, and Beckham in the field, and the team really only needs Semien and Tim Anderson to develop well to be a contender. There should be more than enough money to buy FA’s at catcher, and whatever holes may develop elsewhere.

      The farm might not have much, but the major league team doesn’t look nearly as bad, going forward, as 2013’s record would indicate.

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      • ian says:

        I think people underestimate the tremendous risks of tanking for a franchise. There’s just as much chance (moreso, even!) that you wind up as the Royals/Mariners/Astros lost in the wilderness for a decade or moore as you wind up like the Rays. Your draft picks have to work out AND be high ceiling stars and you have to be right in almost all of your trade/roster decisions, and in the meantime you’re losing revenue and fans that may or may not come back if your rebuild blows a tire when your top Cy Young pitching prospect blows his arm out.

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        • GilaMonster says:

          It is just very difficult to build a team today by buying talent. You need a solid home grown(including trades) talent to compose most your team. Build talent, spend to fill holes. The White Sox have 0 top 50 prospects. There current roster is made of mostly AAAA players.

          Abreu is just a risk for rebuilding team. If he good, you are a bad team. If he is bad, you have a bad team and a bad contract until he is 33….Adam Dunn.

          Why not spend more $$$ in the draft or on international free agents rather than a guy who will be in decline before you can contend?

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        • Preston says:

          Adding Abreu doesn’t cost them a pick and now that the draft and IFA are capped there is no way to spend more on them. You don’t need to lose to build your farm system, you just need to draft better.

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        • nd910 says:

          “…in the wilderness for a decade or Moore…”

          Nice little Freudian slip

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    • Slackerjack says:

      Rios (who was given away for free) makes the same kind of money abreu is going to make. pretty certain that Rios is the far safer bet.

      This signing makes no sense for the white sox.

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  3. Dan Farnsworth says:

    I think the bat speed issue is largely overblown. I’ve only seen his swings from the WBC and a few Cuban National Series swings I could find, but in all of them he demonstrates a vastly better swing than either Cespedes or Puig when they defected. The best MLB hitters don’t hit because of bat speed; otherwise every hitter taken in the first round from the last 30 years would be a star. Miguel Cabrera gets to so many pitches because he has the best hand path in the league, not because of his bat speed.

    Add on top that guys with terrible hand paths look like they have faster bat speed, since they use a lot more muscle/extra movement to get the bat through a sub-optimal plane. Efficiency makes >80-90% of MLB hitters what they are, with some exceptions sprinkled in for guys who just have a bigger motor than everybody else or elite hand-eye coordination. Or the will to win. :)

    Just my opinion; we’ll have to see next year how his swing translates.

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    • Joebrady says:

      Interesting. This is the first time I heard someone use the phrase ‘hand path’. I’ve been saying this about Carew since I first saw him. I didn’t use the phrase ‘hand path’, but I always said he had the best hands I ever saw. It wasn’t his swing so much as hands positioned so that a flick of the bat could slap the ball down the LF foul line.

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    • Derek R-C says:

      Not that I disagree with you. There is way more than bat speed but it can also bring you a long way.

      Look at Mike Napoli, awful hand path but great bat speed.

      With the way power pitching is going in the MLB it is almost a requirement to have bat speed in order to survive.

      Miggy is just a freak that has both and that is why he is sensational.

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      • Dan Farnsworth says:

        I completely disagree. Napoli’s path is a little flat, but that’s been his biggest improvement the last 2-3 years. How else has he been able to drive inside fastballs and keep them fair?

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        • CORNFLAKE5000 says:

          This is precious… non-scouts arguing/discussing scouty things and making up terms in the process. Perhaps you should be commenting on ESPN articles and not Fangraphs.

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        • Dan Farnsworth says:

          Maybe I’ll write up something to explain my made-up terms regarding Abreu’s swing. Seem to make sense to the athletes I work with.

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      • Dan Farnsworth says:

        Didn’t mean my comment to sound that way. I agree with everything you said except for using Napoli as an example.

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    • Basil Ganglia says:

      Does anybody actually measure bat speed? It seems to me that with high speed video you could actually calculate bat speed in relation to when the player begins the swing to when the extension is reached in front of the plate.

      Everything I’ve ever seen on this is just people observing and forming an opinion. Similar to where we would be with regard to pitch velocity if you took away all of the radar guns. Isn’t bat speed something that we should be able to measure with some degree of precision and accuracy?

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  4. grandbranyan says:

    At just over 11 million a year he is getting paid to be essentially a 2 win player. Prince Fielder put up 2.2 WAR this year with a 125 wRC+ (41st among qualified) and horrendous defense/baserunning. That doesn’t seem like an impossible standard to reach given Abreu’s track record.

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    • Joebrady says:

      OTOH, Napoli had a .842 with good fielding for about $14M. I think I would trust Napoli for ~ $28M/2 than Abreu for $68M/6. On top of performance risk, you have an aging risk, small though it might be.

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      • Spencer D says:

        You do have the potential for Abreu to be really bad and basically worthless aside from homers (is this a white sox thing?), but his expected value is something above 2 wins.

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      • murphym45 says:

        Remember that Napoli had 3/39 when they thought he was healthy, only dropped to 1 year because of the hip.

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    • TKay says:

      Excellent comparison. I actually made the same one on Pirates Prospects just the other day. If he gets ~125 wRC+ AND stays healthy the entire time, the contract is worth it.

      But teams in the financial range of the Sox don’t win the WS by loading up on players who are worth exactly what they’re paid. For Abreu to exceed that value, especially if he DH’s some, he has to be more in the zone of 135 wRC+ or above.

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    • eddiegaedel says:

      Dave Cameron is a much smarter man than me, but I think he was incorrect in saying that Abreu has to be a great hitter from the start to provide value in this contract. Say he is a young, healthy Ryan Howard – From 2006-2011, a 7 year span, Howard produced an average of 18.6 WAR, that’s about 2.5 a year, making this contract seem reasonable based on the comp

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  5. Choo says:

    Out of curiosity, which other four teams were in for $65 million? It doesn’t surprise me that with White Sox were in. For better or worse, they have an appetite for raw, plus tools, flaws be damned.

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    • NeilS says:

      According to mlbtraderumors, “Red Sox, Astros, Rangers, Marlins, and Giants” expressed interest.

      But that Marlins mention can’t be right, can it? Not unless interest means they had an offer of at least $1, rather than implying that it was remotely close to $65m.

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      • Choo says:

        The Giants might be the most surprising. We suspect they aren’t crazy about Belt despite his recent 4.0 WAR season, but Posey appears ticketed for 1B eventually. Maybe not.

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        • jdbolick says:

          A lot of the Cuban speculation has been interesting. For instance, most of the teams supposedly in on Guerrero don’t have openings at 2B and some don’t have spots at 3B either.

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        • Roger says:

          Many see Guerrero as a utility man.

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        • walt526 says:

          The idea being talked about would be to move Belt out to LF if they had signed Abreu. Also, I suspect that the long term move is to move Posey to 3B after Sandoval departs. His footwork and arm are good enough to be above-average at the hot corner and rather wasted at first, I think.

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    • Ben says:

      Red Sox, Astros, Rangers, Marlins, and Giants, per MLBTR

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    • Huisj says:

      They also don’t often develop those raw guys into much.

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  6. here goes nothing says:

    *quandAry

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  7. channelclemente says:

    Puig’s last 100 ABs or so have been at a .220 clip. He has great physical assets, but ML pitching is beyond his experience. He never saw a changeup or split finger like he’ll see every game in MLB. Look at Cespedes, a .260ish hitter with HR power that tends to hide out for weeks at a time, not a savior with a cigar. They’re rookies from a AA environment, not supermen.

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    • Nick says:

      That’s quite nitpicky. Despite the late struggles he had an incredible 160 wRC+, and there’s even room for improvement. Pitchers have adjusted to him throwing more breaking stuff, but he adjusted back and will continue to get used to the offspeed. At only 22 his power is only going to grown and he could legitimately be a regular 30 homerun hitter.

      Cespedes’ BABIP was a bit lower this season than expected, but it’s true he might not be quite as good as he was last year. But these players aren’t paid to be supermen anyway. For what they’re paid, they have provided and most likely will continue to provide superior value to anything on the normal free agent market.

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      • Tim Armstrong says:

        Cespedes was also playing with nagging injuries pretty much all year, he would break out in the few healthy stretches he looked a lot more like last season. Also it doesn’t hurt that he is a plus defender, with a above average arm, and HR pop healthy or not. Everyone seems down on Cespedes as if he had a healthy down year. Am I the only one that remembers how not close to 80% full strength he was pretty much all year. I think the issue with him is more that he needs to figure out how to dial his game in so he isn’t getting banged up as much. Expect the 2012 batting line if he’s healthy, and his Achilles heel being hurting himself playing to hard, so he has trouble completing full healthy seasons.

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        • channelclemente says:

          There are always reasons for a player to regress from either a public expectation, or an early metric…my point is, let’s evaluate what a player has, not based on what we hope he does, but what he actually does over a reasonable period of time.

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      • channelclemente says:

        IMO, MLB is a game of adjustment. It’s an open question whether Puig can make those adjustments. Time will tell, not unsubstantiated, misplaced optimism.

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        • Nick says:

          That’s true, but calling MLB pitching beyond his experience is somewhat absurd. He embarrassed it for quite a while. Unsubstantiated, misplaced pessimism isn’t any better.

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    • Utah Dave says:

      Like “savior with a cigar”.

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  8. Johnny says:

    Abreu needs to be on average a 2 win player over the course of the deal for this to at least not look like a bust. He will really need to mash though because 1b/dh who can’t run or play elite defense usually put up WAR numbers around less than 2. i.e. kendrys, dunn etc..

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  9. Big Mami says:

    I could see the marlins having interest for marketability reasons. While Loria seems obtuse about quite a bit he is fully invested in pandering to Miami’s Cuban community.

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  10. Joebrady says:

    “Major League teams are beginning to put a little more faith in players from Cuba, as the big successes of Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig have likely instilled some confidence in players coming over without needing a long transition period.”

    I’m not sure that Cespedes can be classified as a big success. He has a .737 OPS, with a 137/37 K/W, and playing a below average LF. It is the kind of production I could get from Gomes for about $5M. He has also missed a fair amount of games in both seasons.

    And even as well as Puig has done, I’d like to see a full season. He had .754 over his last 153 ABs, with a 36/13. I’m not bagging on him, but plenty of players have done well for a couple of months before flattening out. I’m just not sure I would base my assessment of Cuban BB using Puig’s first 60 games.

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    • Kris says:

      Look at Cespedes wRC+ compared to the others. Looking at OPS in Oakland doesn’t really account for the vast differences between the Coliseum and other ball parks.

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    • Tim Armstrong says:

      So because when he first moved to a new position it took him a minute to adjust LAST YEAR he is below average defensively? He was rocking near Reddicks defensive rating for much of the year. 8 UZR 13.6 UZR150 this year in left. He is being brought lower by fill in time in center where he is below average. Also 10 assists behind that cannon arm. His BA dipped while dealing with wrist injuries this year. But hey haters will hate huh dude.

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    • Tim Armstrong says:

      Oh yeah, and Cespedes does make Dave’s point, in that he has been worth more then Abreu’s AAV in each of his two seasons according to fangraphs, and is a positive value against his own salary. With Upside, if healthier for a full season. Boom Truth bomb.

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    • chuckb says:

      Jose Abreu, a1B/DH with no U.S. professional baseball experience, just got $65 million.

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    • Jeff Francoeur says:

      Nobody has a crazy couple of months and then stinks the rest of his career.

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    • Utah Dave says:

      Kevin Maas

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  11. Hurtlockertwo says:

    It’s sad to see Pujols so far down the list, not unexpected, but still sad.
    If this guy doesn’t hit right away he has likely “poisoned the well” for future Cuban signings for big money.

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    • jdbolick says:

      Only temporarily. Remember that there was a long history of Cuban failure prior to Cespedes & Puig. Some reports have Abreu being the best hitter from the island in recent years, but teams are always going to chase talent they don’t have to surrender a draft pick to get.

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  12. Zach says:

    Generally Dave’s articles are very instructive, but the one problem I had was with this line:

    “In order to justify a $68 million commitment, Abreu is going to have to be one of the better hitters in baseball, pretty much from the first day he sees Major League pitching.”

    $68 million over 6 years comes out to slightly over $11 million per year. We know that the current cost of a win is somewhere around $6 million. That means that Abreu would have to generate about 2 wins with his bat, plus a certain amount above that to cancel out whatever negative value his defense provides. Depending on how often he actually plays at first, how can this commitment be so outrageous? Abreu needs to be an everyday regular for this deal to come out slightly in the White Sox. Am I missing something?

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    • Choo says:

      Two things. First, maintaining a 2 WAR average is not an easy task for a negative glove/run 1B/DH type. That bat has to be pretty damn good.

      Second, penciling out that 2 WAR average to match the length of his contract is fine, but only if Abreu makes the opening day roster and sticks. He is already 26-yrs old so you hope that happens, but who knows.

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    • Xeifrank says:

      Yeah, I agree. Just needs to be league average (hitting + fielding + base running).

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      • Resolution says:

        If he provides 20 runs of value with the bat (~2 wins), is an average 1b defensively and average on the basepaths, he’s a 1 WAR player once positional adjustment is accounted for. That’s assuming he plays 1b the whole time and doesn’t get extensive time as a DH (not as likely but not impossible).

        He’ll need to be about a 3WAR bat to provide 2WAR with average baserunning and defense. This year only 16 players generated 30+ runs of offense and only 6 did that with negative baserunning value.

        I’m optimistic but it’s not a guarantee Abreu will justify this…

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        • Resolution says:

          Oops hold up – totally forgot about replacement value. You may be right, though the positional adjustment may hurt him here – I’m not sure where he’d end up WAR-wise if he was completely average across the board. I’m still thinking 1win (approx. +2 for replacement, -1 for position) but I’m having trouble finding how many runs a league average bat provides.

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        • Choo says:

          Abreu’s most recent listed height/weight is 6-2/258. If accurate, the odds of Abreu being an average baserunner during the life of his contract are probably somewhere between 0% and pretty much 0%. I don’t know enough about his defense to make the same claim, but mobility is a factor. He really does look like Kendrys Morales circa 2009. I just watched Abreu’s PA’s from the 2013 WBC game vs Brazil, and he looks so much like Morales it was impossible to come up with any other comps.

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        • Xeifrank says:

          2.4 WAR is league average. So he actually only needs to be a little bit worse than a league average first baseman. I really have no idea how good he is, but just from all the hype, which is not an analytical means, you’d think he could do that.

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        • Choo says:

          Basically, he will have to hit better than the 2013 versions of Billy butler, Kendrys Morales and Victor Martinez to reach 2 WAR. If he doesn’t, then he will have to play defense at an Adrian Gonzalez level.

          2 WAR for a 1B/DH is not as easy as it seems.

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        • Spit Ball says:

          It’s quite likely that he ends up at DH after one more year of Dunn. He needs to hit like Billy Butler has over the last 5 years with a little more power to make the contract worth it as far as a normal free agent scale. A 130-135 wRC+ or 850 OPS. A 150 wRC+ or 900 OPS is what the White Sox I sure are looking for.

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    • paperlions says:

      The cost of a win is not about $6M, it is about that when trying to add wins through FA…which is the most expensive way to add wins to a roster. Why is it the most expensive way? Well, because of the free market and because many teams pay past-their-prime players for what they have done rather what they should do. The $5-6M/win in FA is largely an effect of a lot of long and bad contracts.

      Wins above replacement, on average, cost a LOT less than $5-6M each because you can add them via other avenues. In addition, the value of wins is not linear for a player, as it is far more valuable to get 6 WAR out of 1 player than 2 WAR each out of 3 players….because it is unlikely that the 6 win player will be accompanied by a couple of replacement level guys.

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  13. GNix says:

    The Sox have more core pieces than people give them credit for – Sale is a top 10 pitcher (and perhaps overall player), Quintana finished top 25 in fWAR (tied with Madison Bumgarner and Patrick Corbin, ahead of Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg), Santiago and Reed are both average w/ upside in their pre-arb years, and Erik Johnson is a top 50 prospect.

    What they don’t have is anyone who can hit a lick, and they’ve pretty well proven that they can’t develop hitting prospects.

    The choice comes down to dealing some pitchers for established ML hitters (say Quintana for a Brandon Belt-type), sign a bunch of vets to low-risk contracts and hope they pan out (say Napoli for 3 yrs/$36 mil 2-4 wins every year), or sign Abreu and hope he hits like they obviously think he can hit (check out the Davenport Translations…).

    They’re more than one piece away from contending, but Hahn obviously made the right move. This was the one chance to get a potentially impact bat without weakening the rest of the club. They freed up a bunch of money by trading Rios/Peavy, and in return got a player with a 6-7 win ceiling. If he hits, the pitching staff is good enough to eventually carry him and some combo of Avisail Garcia/Gordon Beckham/Marcus Semien/Free Agent TBNL to the playoffs. If he doesn’t hit, they suck… just like they sucked last year. Don’t see much downside.

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  14. Sam says:

    To cherry pick a bit, note that 5 of the top 10 first basemen on the 2011-2013 wRC+ list above are on $100 million plus contracts, and 3 are on $200 million plus contracts. If you are one of the GMs that thinks Abreu is going to hit like Prince Fielder, it is easy to see how you could talk yourself into thinking a $68 million guarantee for a player who should be entering his prime is a bargain.

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  15. Froglegs Jackson says:

    The White Sox are paying Abreu to play like a league average player during his prime seasons. Given the limited information we have on him, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation.

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  16. Eminor3rd says:

    Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    What’s wrong with adding talent when you can? They have like $60m committed to next year’s time right now despite having a full active roster. They are throwing a league-average valuation at a 26 year old with a ton of upside. Hahn needs to make the team better next year without sacrificing the future, that’s exactly what he just did. No picks lost, no prospects lost, $11m per year committed to a payroll that has almost no big contracts past 2015. Good gamble.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      Also, NOTHING anywhere in the minors that projects to be a league average 1B.

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    • MikeS says:

      Yeah. Somebody has to play first. They have the payroll space after cleaning house last year and Dunn coming off the books at the end of the year, and this contract won’t cripple them even if he isn’t very good.

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  17. jon says:

    Comparing to Cespedes:

    Cespedes had a K:BB in Cuba of 1, while Abreu actually is closer to 0.5 in recent seasons.
    Cespedes hit .311 in the Cuban league for his career while Abreu is .342 (which several seasons at or above .400 lately).

    I don’t know anything about them because I’ve never seen them play but statistically it looks like Abreu is the better hitter by all measures.

    Also, fangraphs said in 2012 that US Cellular had the best park factor for RHB in all of baseball. Its easy to speculate some big numbers for Abreu when he arrives, or at least enough to justify the money.

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  18. chiefs says:

    Wonder if the person who had final say on Abreu was the same person who made the call on drafting Hawkins?

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  19. Green Mountain Boy says:

    Although the Abreu signing might work out (but I doubt it), it’s moves like this that exemplify why the White Sox have become perennial non-contenders. Although Ken Williams caught lightning in a bottle in 2005, what else did he really do? And then they promote him to Executive VP? Good Lord!

    And what if Abreu DOES turn out to be a 5 win player? The White Sox are a 4th place team instead of a 5th place team. Great. Maybe they’d be better served by taking all that money and upgrading their scouts.

    This signing is nothing more than a short-term PR ploy. Remember Dice-K? How’d that work out? Glad I’m not a White Sox fan. Stay away. Stay FAR away.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      Wow, you have no clue about the White Sox, do you?

      Kenny Williams’ “promotion” was a move to an advisory role, taking away the ultimate say on what happens, and handing it to Rick Hahn. It was so clearly a move to a different regime to anyone who has followed the White Sox at all.

      This signing, the largest contract in team history, the longest contract in team history, and the largest international signing in MLB history — is completely unprecedented. The Kenny Williams regime was famous for spending close to nothing on non-MLB talent, and the only notable international signings they’ve been in on have generally worked out very well. The biggest bust so far has been ~$10m over several years for Dayan Viciedo. This is so different from the past that it’s terrifying that a FG reader thinks it could exemplify anything about the team’s past.

      If you have no idea, why do you feel compelled to comment?

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      • Green Mountain Boy says:

        My point was not that Ken Williams shouldn’t have been removed as the GM. My point was that he sucked as the GM. I would also refer you to this article on mlb.com,

        http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20121025&content_id=40053584&c_id=cws

        where the word “promoted” is featured in the headline. Further, my point was that the White Sox should have gotten rid of Williams entirely. Instead, they’re allowing him to live off of 2005 forever.

        Frankly, who cares that this signing is the largest and/or longest in team history? The question that should be asked is whether they spent the money in the best way to attain future wins, at the lowest risk. And the answer to that is no. And if you think they did, you don’t know baseball in the 21st century.

        For example, look at the Red Sox. They went from a non-functional team in 2011-2012 to one win (as we speak) from the World Series. How? By spending money wisely. Napoli. Victorino. Gomes. Ross. Uehara. None superstars, but value for the money that was spent. The White Sox would be well served to consider emulating the Red Sox’ model for turning a team around in a short amount of time.

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        • Eminor3rd says:

          “where the word “promoted” is featured in the headline.”

          Right, and when people get fired, the headlines say they “resigned.” They send KW on scouting assignments. Like Dayton Moore, some guys are good at somethings without being good running the whole show.

          “Frankly, who cares that this signing is the largest and/or longest in team history?”

          I don’t know who cares, but you said this is the type of move that has made the White Sox perennial non-contenders (despite the fact that they were contenders in 2012). I was just point out that this type of move has never happened in history, so it can’t have been part of anything they’d done before.

          “For example, look at the Red Sox. They went from a non-functional team in 2011-2012 to one win (as we speak) from the World Series. How? By spending money wisely. Napoli. Victorino. Gomes. Ross. Uehara. None superstars, but value for the money that was spent. The White Sox would be well served to consider emulating the Red Sox’ model for turning a team around in a short amount of time.”

          How do we know they won’t do that? The offseason hasn’t even begun. What they did was just fill a gaping organizational hole with a dude with huge upside while paying him to be a league average player. Is that not spending wisely? I mean we’ll find out if he’s a bust or not, but clearly they don’t think he will be — is that not a sound strategy? Everyone was criticizing the Red Sox for those signings last year, too, but it turns out the Red Sox were more right about those players than the fans and media.

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        • Rich Warren says:

          Are you suggesting that you knew at the time each player was signed that they would be that good? Hindsight is 20-20 for good and bad. That and $1.50 will get you a small coffee.

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  20. Green Mountain Boy says:

    Let me clarify further. Maybe I would have been better served to say “this type of decision” rather than “this type of move”. And maybe “perennial non-World Series chances” rather than “perennial non-contenders”, although to me it’s kind of the same thing. In other words, I’d rather be the New York Giants and win 2 Super Bowls in 5 years, while stinking in the others, than the New England Patriots, who haven’t won anything since 2004, despite “contending” pretty much every year.

    Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Rick Hahn work under Kenny Williams as the Assistant GM for 12 years? So I would assume he’s part of the problem, not part of the solution. Hahn himself said he “wanted to carry on Williams’ vision”. The White Sox needed to bring in someone from outside the organization… a different voice.

    But whatever. You’re clearly a White Sox fan. I get it, you want your team to improve and contend for thw World Series every year. I admire that. As for me, I’m a baseball fan. I’d like the White Sox to contend too. But at this point in my life and in this era of baseball, it drives me crazy to see teams spending money foolishly, and I think signing Abreu is foolish. If I’m wrong, you got me. Remind me after a “White Sox Win the World Series” piece on here and I’ll publicly acknowledge my foolishness to Fangraphs Nation.

    As an aside, I do admire the Astros, of all teams. They ARE spending their money wisely, even if it means going in the tank for 5 years. They’ll come out better for it in the end, and if they’ve made good choices, maybe they’ll be World Series contenders in 2018. I hope so.

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  21. Mike says:

    What if the Astros continue to suck for much monger than anticipated… then what is your conclusion about their strategy? Bad luck? Seems to me that any judgement of whether the Astros approach is wise needs to be prorogued until they are successful. Their approach is novel I guess, but not necessarily better.

    And then I am still not clear what your definition of success is… According to you, how many teams in baseball have legit World Series contention chances every year? 8? What does that mean for the rest of the 20+ teams?

    If short playoff series of 5 and 7 games are such a crap shoot, seems to me like I would want to contend every year in MLB so that I have the best chance of getting lucky… Does your football strategy have any relevance to MLB?

    Perhaps we need to acknowledge that different baseball teams can make what appears to be logically inconsistent decisions and still make reasonable ones given bounded rationality and imperfect information. Or we can just continue to disagree on the internet. Woohoo!

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  22. lesmash says:

    I clicked on the Jose Abreu link at the start of the article, and it brought me to a minor league guy in the Twins organization who had 5 saves and is listed at 5’7″ and 170 lbs. Probably not the same guy.

    Anyways, I can see some possible upside here for the White Sox:
    1. No development cost.
    2. No waiting for the player to reach his peak.
    3. As discussed, we are basically talking about a 2 win player based on his salary, so a seemingly very reachable target for a guy with plus power.
    4. Recent Cubans have been at least as good and often better than advertised, so perhaps the market has not accurately projected how good these guys are.
    5. If the Sox do not find themselves in contention in the next few years, he could be an easy guy to flip with an AAV of only $11 million or so.
    6. If you do keep him for 6 years, he is still off the books after his age 32 season.

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  23. Green Mountain Boy says:

    First… my definition of successful is World Series titles. Unless you aspire to the best, you’ll never be the best. Given the level of intelligent people in the game today, which is the highest its every been, I would accept an average of one Worls Series title every five years.

    Granted, every MLB team is not playing with the same amount of financial resources. Unfortunately. However, I value thinking outside the box more for those teams whose financial options are limited. Hence, my hope the Astros are successful. Plodding along following the same old paradigm just isn’t going to work going forward.

    I do agree with you on a couple of things, one of them unfortunate. Yes, I do believe that there are only 6-8 teams with the financial and intellectual resources to win World Series titles consistently. This has been proven through the course of history. Yankees… Dodgers… Cardinals… you can’t deny it. On the other hand, there have been teams who have dominated for 10-12 year periods of time. Orioles… Pirates…Reds…A’s…Twins…Braves… but there’s no reason the Rays or the Astros can’t be the next team in that line. However, to do so, they have to think out of the box, which they are doing. Will it work? Who knows. But it’s better than wallowing under .500 for 15 years following the old methodology.

    Also, yes, 5 and 7 game series ARE a crapshoot. No denying that. I call it “luck of balls in play”. An inch here, a split second there… a great season turns into another winter of golf.

    On the other hand, I think it’s finally been acknowledged that there’s building a team to win a 162 game season and there’s building a team to win it all. Ask the 90s Braves or the early 2000s A’s about that. Yeah, a short series can go either way for a myriad of reasons, but usually things end up going to the team built to win it all. And that’s the team with dominant pitching. I think even Billy Beane would agree with that.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      I’m confused about your last paragraph. You cite the 90s Braves or early 2000s A’s, presumably as teams that are built for 162 game seasons rather than being built to win it all (since they only won 1 WS between them). Then you say the team built to win it all is the team with dominant pitching. Both teams had terrific pitching, but had trouble winning it all.

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    • lesmash says:

      I understand the popular narrative about pitching winning in the playoffs, about defense winning in the playoffs in basketball and football and hockey . . . we’ve all heard broadcasters and managers and coaches and players say this over and over to the point that we tend to think it is a fact.

      However, the stats say that this narrative is perhaps more fairy tale than fact. There is a good chapter in the book Scorecasting that deals explicitly with this topic, and it is at least worth considering whether or not better pitching does, in fact, win more often than better hitting. I’m not sure that it does in any measurable way.

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  24. Tim says:

    Signing anybody brings risk, look at how the angels have panned out in recent years. My thought on this signing is the white Sox made a good decision. They aren’t attracting any 2+ WAR hitters over there this year off the free agent market, not at that price point. A team as bad as the white Sox are has to overpay to get players. Getting Napoli, like some earlier posters suggest, is a pipe dream if they are bidding against the Red Sox. If Abreu works out, they don’t have a contender, but they have a selling point to other free agents that they don’t need much to get over the hump. Then they have a shot at getting guys for what they’re worth in the coming years.

    If he doesn’t pan out to be worth his salary, you’re set back, but at least you know it after one year instead of trading Sale for a boat load of prospects that you may not know if you can win with for 3+ years.

    Besides, what do you pay your scouts for if you don’t listen to them? No scout has made the right call every time, but you pay them because you think they give you a shot at finding guys that you can win with. If your scouts tell you the guy can play, give it a shot.

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  25. sox2727 says:

    Obviously the $68mil commitment is considerable for a relative unknown. However, I think we need to keep in mind that the particulars of the contract are still not known. Rick Hahn has shown in his time as lead contract negotiator when he was assistant GM to be creative with contracts. If this is a situation where a sizable portion of the $68mil is in the form of a signing bonus (let’s hypothetically say $20mil for simplicity sake), now you’re looking at $48mil spread out over 6 years going towards the major league payroll. If he provides the power they believe he can, is an AAV of $8mil for a 1B in his prime a bad investment? Obviously the money is still being spent at that point, but it will give a team like the Sox who have many holes to fill more financial flexibility to continue to bring in pieces to address their many needs.

    Also, I see many people commenting that the organization would be better focused investing that money into the draft/international infrastructure. Keep in mind the current CBA puts limitations on that spending. They already will have a larger pool of money to spend in the draft and internationally due to their piss poor 2013 than they have ever had under the new system. Rick Hahn has already commented multiple times this offseason that investing all the available money towards the draft and internationally is something the Sox will look to do to build up their system, which is greatly needed.

    At the end of the day, this is a tremendous risk for the organization but if the contract is creatively structured and he provides them with the power in the middle of the lineup they need it may turn out to be OK. I have my skepticism about the deal, especially given the mixed nature of some scouting reports but in the end we will just have to wait and see.

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  26. Steve B says:

    This was a really solid article. Thanks for it.

    I think there was an angle missing though, and one that the comments haven’t addressed: MLB teams’ desperation for big time power hitters. A handful of teams, including the lauded Red Sox and their mid-level value signing strategy, were willing to invest a vast sum of money into an unproven player who can’t play defense. I think that says a lot about the scarcity of sluggers in the post-steroid era.

    Also, I have a WAR question related to my point that I hope someone will be kind enough to answer. To be successful in fantasy baseball (in most leagues), you need to construct a balanced team that can add value in a range of categories.

    To my knowledge, in measuring players’ values in real baseball, WAR doesn’t care where a player’s value comes from– you can have a 2.0 WAR player who’s a plus fielder with no power, or a 2 WAR player with power but can’t field. The difference to me is that power is a lot more difficult to find than defense. And my inclination is that, to contend, you need to have a mix of abilities on your roster.

    Is that a blind spot in using WAR to judge the Abreu signing? Does it make sense to say that the scarcity of 30+ homer guys in the MLB makes a guy like Abreu more valuable than WAR makes him seem, because of the way in which he attains that WAR?

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  27. Tim says:

    So you’re saying a major league team needs a balanced roster because you need a balanced roster for fantasy baseball? Or are you just stating your inclination without any reason?

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    • Tim says:

      Crap. Supposed to be a reply to Steve B.

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      • Steve B says:

        It’s my inclination. Fantasy baseball is supposed to mimic real baseball, and real baseball teams have typically had players with different skill sets– speed and contact at the top of the lineup and power in the middle, for example. I don’t know if it actually matters which skill sets provide value. I know that WAR doesn’t care, and I know that virtually every intelligent baseball post I’ve read about evaluating individual players leans on WAR. However, the crux of my question is that, when building a real baseball team, is it actually important to have a mix of skill sets? And if it is, would that make a player with a rare skill set more valuable than other players, even if WAR says they contribute the same amount to winning a baseball game?

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  28. redsox1 says:

    A couple additional factors I haven’t seen mentioned yet that make the signing a worthwhile risk for Chicago, while also justifying a bit of a premium IMO:
    – There’s significant scarcity in free agency for impact bats that don’t come with draft pick compensation attached.
    – Cellular Field yields more HRs to right-handed batters than any other MLB stadium. Abreu’s skillset clearly aligns well with his home stadium.

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  29. AddyMac says:

    Certainly, it is risky to invest such an amount in a player who needs to provide very high rates of production in baseball’s most difficult facet to produce in…especially relative to his position.

    (sidenote: look at those ‘top 15′ 1B…that means that Paul Konerko’s 15th best MLB production over the last three years is the ‘MLB median’ level of 1B production…and it’s Paul Konerko…that’s scary when giving credence to the law of prospect attrition at corner positions…)

    That said–and I promise I’m really not advocating FOR or AGAINST this move–to put myself in Hahn’s shoes, I just cleared a ton of payroll this past season getting rid of the Rios and Peavy contracts, and because of the lack of defensive requisites, you can bet IF Abreu hits, he’s at least capable of retaining his offensive value due to a lack of wear-and-tear playing a center-diamond premium position.

    As many people above pointed out, the White Sox certainly are rebuilding, with a questionable propensity to draft ‘brothas’ with fringy hitting ability in the first place (I see you Doug Laumann..).

    This kind of power isn’t available all the time–on the open FA market, or in any given draft class.

    Look at DET, BOS, LAD, and STL–the four ‘best’ teams this year (I agree they are the four best teams). Look at the power distributed throughout the lineups at EVERY position, let alone the corners.

    Loosely, it would seem as though to compete (especially as an AL club), a team needs real power up and down the 8-9 guys in a lineup. Because this power that Abreu has is so uncommon, PLUS the large amount of payroll I cleared, PLUS as a new GM I want a statement sign, PLUS I need to start building longer term chips NOW…isn’t there enough potential reward here too we can at least agree on seeing the rationale?

    Abreu represents a level of potential power production that you just don’t necessarily find EVERY given year. And all things considered, CWS was a prime target because they both have the clear payroll and general ‘teambuilding’ room to really restructure their lineup.

    Not totally correlated, and perhaps a total wash BUT: PS…I have such respect for Jeff Lunhow and the ex-Cardials-now-Astros scouting staff, should the fact the Astros (also a rebuilding team with tons of payroll flexibility) were ‘in’ on Abreu give me/we any more confidence in the ‘translateability’ of Abreu’s hit tool? No one is questioning the power, simply how much it can be brought out on a regular enough basis to justify such a fiscal investment.

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    • AddyMac says:

      In other words (and I definitely rambled above…):

      Given the rareness of the open-market availability of this kind of potential power production and the clear payroll CWS potentially has, is this the type of risk a team HAS to take to TRY and put the HR power it needs in its lineup with a player 26 years old who can theoretically step in right away??

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  30. Gyre says:

    Better check with the Tigers on how that works out
    or the Yankees and their billions spent without a Series

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  31. FeslenR says:

    ALL free agents are a risk to some degree or another. There’s more risk with international free agents because teams don’t scout them as frequently and you’re not sure of the level of competition.

    However, that being said, if a team feels the need to gamble on a player I believe they should do this. I really don’t like it when a team doesn’t even sniff a ‘big name’ guy out.

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  32. What are the scouts saying about Jose Abreu at the All-Star break? Are they still questioning his bad speed, his power?

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