The Chicago White Sox made the first big splash of the offseason by agreeing to terms with Cuban defector Jose Abreu. Abreu, 26, is a right-handed hitting first baseman and will assume the position that Paul Konerko had for so many years. The deal is reportedly for six years and worth $68 million, making Abreu’s signing the highest first-time contract for an international free agent in MLB history.
Obviously, this is a gamble by general manager Rick Hahn, but it is one that is worth taking. With Paul Konerko expected to retire, the White Sox have a glaring hole at first base. Couple that with a relatively thin free agent market and that the White Sox cleared roughly $40 million is salary last season, and you can see why Rick Hahn felt it was necessary to go after the unknown product.
Anytime you sign an international free agent there will be question marks, and Jose Abreu is no different. As mentioned, Abreu is 26 years old, and if the age is accurate he is entering the prime of his career. But, what kind of career will he have?
The one thing that all scouts agree on is that Abreu has tremendous raw power. Most scouts rate Abreu’s power as a 70 on the 20-80 scale, with some scouts pushing their evaluation to 80. The real question with Abreu is whether or not he will be able to hit for a high enough average to reach his full power potential. Some scouts have classified Abreu’s bat speed as “slider-speed”, meaning he hasn’t shown the ability to catch up to mid-to-high 90s fastballs. While that may be true, some other scouts have a different opinion, stating that Abreu simply has not faced many good fastball pitchers in the Cuban League. In Cuba, the average fastball velocity is significant lower than in the MLB. For example, the average fastball in the majors this season was 91.3 mph. In Cuba, many pitchers rely on off-speed pitches and feature sliders, splitters, and forkballs. In any event, there will certainly be a learning curve for Abreu during the better part of his first season in the majors. If Abreu can prove that he can handle fastballs, then the White Sox may have themselves a great hitter.
Just to give you an idea of what kind of hitter Abreu has been, take a look at his stats for the last two years in Cuba. In the 2009-10 season, Abreu hit .399 with 30 home runs and 76 RBIs in 89 games. Abreu followed that outstanding year with some terrific numbers in 2010-11 by hitting .453 with 33 home runs and 93 RBIs in 63 games. Based on his production, it is apparent that the potential is there, and that is why I am excited that the White Sox took a gamble on the young slugger.
It remains to be seen what other moves the White Sox will make, but they could potentially have three young hitters to build around in Jose Abreu, Avisail Garcia, and Dayan Viciedo. All three players posses serious power and could combine to hit 100 home runs a season in the heart of the order.
Of course, things can go wrong and this deal could backfire. However, the fact is the White Sox are in much better position to rebuild their roster now, than they were back in July.
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