Hammer of the gods: White Sox' Jose Abreu making powerful impact
"Jose Abreu is basically Thor," Deadspin editor Tim Marchman tweeted the other day. While I have never been a comic books reader, and I've only seen parts of one of the Thor movies on a pre-dawn flight, the comparison seems apt. Abreu came to the United States from a mysterious, disyllabic land. He is physically massive; his 6-foot-3-inch, 255-pound frame has earned him the nickname "Oso," meaning Bear, from his teammates on the White Sox. And he likes to hit things very, very hard. Through his first eight official major league games, the 27-year-old Cuban has an AL-best 11 RBIs and five extra base hits, the most recent two of those being the home runs he slugged Tuesday night against the Rockies.
The difference is that, while Thor's arrival in the U.S. was a surprise -- he came to fight his emo, British brother, I believe (it was a very small screen on a very early flight) -- Abreu's was long anticipated. When it was announced last August that he had escaped Cuba, everybody already knew that he was the best hitter in that island nation. He had hit 33 homers in just 66 games in the Cuban league's 2010-11 season, and he consistently produced in international tournaments like the World Baseball Classic. Additionally, two of his countrymen, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, had in consecutive years demonstrated that Cuban hitters can enter the majors and quickly become stars. So last September, I asked a major league scouting executive a simple question: If Cespedes got a four-year, $36 million deal from the A's in February of 2012, and the Dodgers signed Puig for seven years and $42 million in June of that year, how much might Abreu -- a better player than Cespedes in Cuba, and a far more proven one than Puig -- receive?
"I think it's going to go over 100," the executive said then, as in million. "He can really hit, there's a comfort factor there because of his track record, and ownership groups are mad because they didn't sign Puig and have since seen what he's done. If you combine all that, the money will go high."
It did go high, but not to $100 million. When the White Sox signed Abreu for six years and $68 million late last October, they beat out seven other clubs (including the Astros, Giants Marlins, Rangers, Red Sox and Rockies) who had made offers for him, and it was reported that four of those had come awfully close, bidding in excess of $60 million. While it did not work in exactly the same way, it was something like the major league equivalent of a fantasy baseball auction for a particularly sought after property, in which the pace of the bids slows down even as they creep ever higher, as each owner hopes that just one more million will land the player even as he fears that he'll be stuck with him.
Often, in those situations, the most immediate remorse is not held by the buyer, but by those who nearly missed. Yes, $68 million is a lot of money -- the most ever given to a Cuban player, the largest total deal in White Sox history. But it is not that much, on baseball's scale. Pro-rating his $10 million signing bonus, Abreu will earn $8.66 million this year, making him the game's 128th highest-paid player, just behind players like Cody Ross and Erick Aybar. Abreu will make just under one-third of the salary of Robinson Cano, who is four years older than he is. Abreu now has just 25 total major league games under his belt, 17 of those in spring training, but as they have watched him seamlessly adjust to big league pitching and immediately become entrenched as the White Sox lineup's No. 3 hitter, there is little question that many of the game's general managers would already like a do-over.
It is awfully early -- Thor's hammer has only just begun to strike -- and it is certainly possible that the concerns about Abreu that combined to slightly depress his contract might prove legitimate. These include worries that he might be injury-prone, as his 255 pounds aren't entirely chiseled; that his bat looks a little slow time times; that sophisticated U.S. pitchers will adjust to him, as they have to some degree to Cespedes and, by last year's end, to Puig.
However, most every team in the league would still have signed Cespedes and Puig to their current contracts if they knew then what they know now, and the odds appear good that the same will soon be true of Abreu. That his contract so exceeded theirs was a result of the fact that he was considered a safer option than they were, in part because of the precedent they had set by succeeding at the major league level. That Abreu's contract did not exceed those of Cespedes and Puig by even more already seems a mistake born of an exaggerated fear of a potential downside risk. It certainly looks as if the White Sox have added one of the best hitters in the world at less than half his market value, and the next Cuban to arrive -- perhaps Alfredo Despaigne, the 27-year-old who was permitted to play in the Mexican League last summer -- will not be available at anything close to that price.