In the pantheon of recent Cuban baseball stars, there is one name you should really know, regardless of any connection to Major League Baseball or the Chicago Cubs: Jose Abreu.
The 26-year-old first baseman has been putting up in Cuba the kinds of numbers Barry Bonds was putting up when he could no longer fit in a regular sized hat. So prolific has been Abreu’s performance that Jonah Keri, writing last year at Grantland, wondered if Abreu might be the best hitter in the world. The numbers are stupid, even for Cuba: .453/.597/.986 in 2010-11, .394/.542/.837 in 2011-12, and .382/.535/.735 in 2012-13 (ooh, but I see a downward trend!). If Yoennis Cespedes’ defection and free agency were a hype train, Abreu’s would probably be a hype aircraft carrier – especially since it come come on the heels of Cespedes and Yasiel Puig raising the bar for Cuban performances in MLB. Expectations would be enormous, and thus the hype redoubled.
And we might be getting ready to land some fighter jets. According to reports out of Latin America, Abreu recently escaped Cuba, and Baseball America reports this morning that Abreu is indeed intending to defect so that he can sign with an MLB team.
The time line on Abreu’s actual arrival in MLB is difficult to predict, given the necessary steps of establishing residency (after successfully fleeing, that is), achieving free agent status from MLB, and being unblocked by the U.S. Government. Depending on how things play out, we’ve seen this process take as long as six months, or as little as a month or two. Presumably, Abreu would like to be available for teams to sign this offseason – and preferably early in the free agent period so that the maximum number of bidders are available – so we’ll see if things move relatively quickly over the next couple of months.
Other than the long process involved, there’s another big reason for you, dear reader, to pump the brakes on your personal excitement: Abreu is a first baseman. Although he’s got a huge bat that the Cubs could use, and he represents an external market piece that a team like the Cubs should theoretically be into signing, the Cubs are not going to sign a huge money first baseman right now, with Anthony Rizzo developing and under long-term, team-friendly control. Abreu is a big dude, and I’m not going to pretend to know whether he could passably play a corner outfield spot in the big leagues (Ben Badler says he’s a first base/DH-only type of guy). If he could, I’d argue that investing big money in a top corner outfield bat is a pretty good idea for the Cubs in the near-term, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. Regardless, I’m not sure Abreu is that guy.
How much Abreu gets will be very interesting to follow, as he will impact the free agent market regardless of whether the Cubs pursue him. Organizations will have to determine whether they believe his bat can play in the big leagues – and at what level – and where he fits into their long-term needs. Even at $50 to $70 million (which would be the largest contract given to a Cuban defector, topping the seven years and $42 million Yasiel Puig got from the Dodgers), there’s a huge amount of risk involved with a guy who has never played in MLB. That Cespedes and Puig have had success doesn’t hurt, but every player is different.
At bottom, I don’t expect the Cubs to be major players on Abreu, if and when he reaches free agency, but he will be a huge story this offseason, and could easily impact the market for other players (which would, in turn, affect the Cubs). I will be following his story closely.
UPDATE: Dionisio Soldevila reports that Abreu is now in Haiti.