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Is Big-Money Cuban Signing Jose Abreu Capable of Instant MLB Stardom?

Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, left, smiles with Chicago White Sox  General Manager Rick Hahn during a news conference where Hahn announced a six-year, $68 million deal with Abreu Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013, in Chicago. The 26-year-old Abreu will receive a signing bonus of $10 million and earn $7 million in 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Mike RosenbaumMLB Prospects Lead WriterFebruary 19, 2014

The Chicago White Sox made Jose Abreu the richest Cuban player in Major League Baseball history this offseason, inking the slugging first baseman to a six-year, $68 million contract through 2019.

Yet, as is the case with any big-name international signee, the 27-year-old will now be expected to produce out of the gate this season, presumably hitting in the middle of order for the White Sox. 

Cuban players have made an immediate impact in the major leagues in recent years, with Yoenis Cespedes’ eye-opening rookie campaign in 2012 and Yasiel Puig’s historically strong 2013 season serving as prime examples. Though they both struggled at times in their stateside debuts, their ability to make adjustments allowed them to overcome said struggles and turn in impressive rookie campaigns. 

Although Abreu is a much different type of player, he has the makings of a future star in the major leagues. 

  

Background

Abreu put up monster offensive numbers annually during roughly a decade playing in Cuba's Serie Nacional

In 2009-10, he finished third in the league’s MVP voting—behind well-known mashers Alfredo Despaigne and Yulieski Gourriel—after batting .388/.542/.786 with 30 home runs and a 55/74 K/BB ratio in 94 games. In addition to drawing 32 intentional walks, he also led the league in on-base percentage and slugging while finishing second in batting average and home runs.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

During the following season, Abreu put himself on the map with one of top offensive performances in Serie history. Appearing in 77 games, he batted .448/.592/.952 with 16 doubles, 37 home runs and a 37/66 K/BB ratio. He was subsequently named league MVP.

During the regular season, Abreu tied Yoenis Cespedes with 33 home runs despite missing 23 games with bursitis in his shoulder.

Abreu once again posted huge numbers during the 2011-12 season, batting .394/.543/.835 with 18 doubles, 37 home runs, 103 RBI and a 43/80 K/BB ratio in 92 games. Although he paced the circuit in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS, he finished behind Despaigne in the end-of-season MVP voting.

Last year, Abreu furthered his success by batting .344/.479/.604 with 17 doubles, 19 home runs and a 43/58 K/BB ratio in 83 games. However, his season was cut short due to his participation in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, in which he batted .360/.385/.760 with three home runs in 25 at-bats.

 

Scouting Report

Listed at 6’3”, 255 pounds, Abreu is arguably the most prolific Cuban sluggers in the country’s rich baseball history. A right-handed hitter who showcases robust power to all fields, he employs a unique double toe-tap load to initiate an easy, but powerful, swing.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

While some scouts are divided about how his strength-driven bat speed will translate at the major league level, he does an excellent job of getting the barrel on the ball and uses his strength to drive it with authority from line to line.

In previous international competitions, such as the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam and the World Baseball Classic last March, Abreu demonstrated the ability to square velocity, though he seemed to prefer pitches that allowed him to extend his hands. Like most Cuban hitters, he can punish mediocre breaking balls within the strike zone but also chases better offerings off the plate.

In spite of his perceived shortcomings at the dish, White Sox manager Robin Ventura believes that Abreu’s relentless work ethic in the cage will aid his success next season, via MLB.com's Scott Merkin:

It's professional. That's another one of those things we liked about him, numbers-wise and talent...He has more of a professional approach for being a big guy, hitting the ball the other way, more aware of his pitch. That's stuff you like to see, the way they work, they go about it. He knows how to practice.

...

You see that with guys even from other teams...You would try to peak over at Edgar Martinez in the cage to see what he was doing. When you play the Yankees, you get in the cage when Don Mattingly is in there to see what he's doing and why. Hopefully, he has that. His practice habits and the things that he does, he has the potential to do that.

Though Abreu will have plenty to prove next season, it's hard not to get excited about his future when he's mentioned him in the same sentence with Martinez and Mattingly.

 

2014: What to Expect

Compared to other recent Cuban players, there will be greater expectations tied to Abreu’s bat due to his projection as a middle-of-the-order first baseman. Plus, while Cespedes and Puig also provide value in the outfield and on the base paths, Abreu’s impact in the major leagues will depend solely on his ability to hit for power and drive in runs.

Basically, he has a smaller margin for error as a bat-only player.

However, the White Sox are confident he will make an immediate impact next season. And if the statistical projection models are correct, Abreu should emerge as one of the more productive first basemen in the American League:

Jose Abreu's 2014 Statistical Projections (Steamer, ZIPS)
PA2BHRRBIBB%K%BABABIPwOBA
Steamer39817256311.0%18.9%.272.279.384
ZIPS53823266510.6%17.1%.273.288.371
FanGraphs.com

As you can see, both the Steamer and ZIPS projection models (via FanGraphs) believe that Abreu will be good for a .270-plus batting average (not driven by his batting average on balls in play), 25-plus home runs and solid strikeout and walk rates, especially for a first-year player.

So, how does Abreu’s potential production compare to some of the AL’s other top first basemen? Here’s a look at the ZIPS projections:

2014 ZIPS Projections: AL First Basemen
PA2BHRRBIBB%K%BABABIPwOBA
Jose Abreu53823266510.6%17.1%.273.288.371
Chris Davis61227411079.0%30.9%.267.326.370
Edwin Encarnacion56427308911.5%13.5%.276.271.377
Mike Napoli47624226812.2%30.5%.241.314.350
Prince Fielder669303010112.6%16.3%.276.293.364
Eric Hosmer6533120778.2%15.1%.296.325.352
FanGraphs.com

While there are plenty of question marks regarding Abreu’s performance next season, the ZIPS projections suggest his production will rank in the top five among AL first basemen.

Granted this is purely speculative, but it's difficult to envision him not making an impact next season in the major leagues.

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