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+:

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 the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.