For two days last October, some 200 major league executives and scouts gathered around a back field at the Yankees' academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. The clubs had sent delegations of different sizes -- "I was walking out after the first day when a van with a Red Sox logo pulled up and like 10 dudes got in it," recalled one executive -- but they were all there for the same reason: To get an up close look at Jose Dariel Abreu, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound, 26-year-old Cuban slugger who had recently escaped from his native country and was now ready to sign what promised to be a very lucrative free agent contract.
On both days of his showcase, which had been arranged by his new agents Barry Praver and Bart Hernandez, Abreu took an extended batting practice session and did fielding drills before playing in a game with younger prospects that was designed so that he would receive an at-bat every four or five hitters. He displayed the great righthanded power that had, in 2010-11, allowed him to slug 33 home runs in just 66 games in Cuba's Serie Nacional and to star in international tournaments like the World Baseball Classic. But he also showed himself to be a disciplined and advanced all-around hitter, repeatedly lining the ball to rightfield.
By the end of those two days in Boca Chica, a consensus had emerged among the scouting community. Abreu had little footspeed, and he was at best an average defender at first base. His value would be almost entirely tied to his bat. The thing was, his bat speed looked to be only fair, not elite. "A lot of the scouts used the term 'slider speed bat,'" said one executive who did not attend Abreu's showcase but received extensive reports from the event. "A mistake hitter, not one who can catch up to the best fastballs."
Five weeks into his major league career, Abreu leads baseball with 12 home runs -- he has gone deep off of flamethrowers including Chris Archer, David Price, Danny Salazar and Justin Verlander -- and the American League with 35 RBIs. The suggestion that he can swing a bat in any fashion other than an ideal one seems absurd. There were, however, three reasons why scouts came away from his showcase saying that was so.
The first was that almost all of them had traveled down to Boca Chica with the hope, sometimes subconscious, that they would come away unimpressed. After the quick success that Abreu's countrymen, including Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, had experienced in the majors, and due to the fact that the potential for righthanded power like Abreu's had become a scarce commodity, there was little question that Abreu was in line to command a contract that exceeded the record seven years and $42 million the Dodgers had given Puig in 2012. That is an intimidating prospect for any baseball executive, and it is far safer and easier for one's own career to find reasons to avoid recommending such a gamble, or at the least to put one's reservations firmly on the record. Kenny Williams, the former White Sox general manager and current team vice president who attended the showcase with a scout named Marco Paddy, showed great enthusiasm for Abreu and helped lead his club to sign him for six years and $68 million in October. But even Williams had initially hoped to find something wrong with him. "I had gone down with the idea that I didn't want to like him," Williams admitted.
There was also plenty of gamesmanship in play on the part of teams that came away liking Abreu very much. It was to the benefit of interested parties to have doubts about Abreu percolate through the league, and when it came down to it, most interested teams stayed in the bidding until the very end. While eight clubs made initial offers -- including the Giants, Marlins and Rangers, whose respective GMs had reportedly been among the crowd in Boca Chica -- sources say that four teams besides the White Sox ultimately made bids that exceeded $60 million, meaning they came very close to landing Abreu: The Astros, Brewers, Red Sox and Rockies.
That so many teams were interested at such a level suggests that the rumors questioning Abreu's batspeed had been spread, in part, with a purpose. "The guy plays first base, and the bar is really high for that, especially as he's a righthanded hitter," said one scouting executive. "If this guy doesn't hit, he's a total dud, and there's nothing you can do with him. The fact that the White Sox went down and saw this mysterious Cuban guy, came away and put their nuts on the line and gave him nearly $70 million, that says a lot."
The third reason why Abreu's bat speed was deemed only fair is perhaps the most interesting: "Well, it is!" said one scout who was in Boca Chica. "We weren't wrong. You note that and understand that. His bat speed's not crazy, but he's short to the ball. It's a really easy swing. You know, you can always find something wrong -- Mike Piazza had a crazy long swing, and his career worked out OK. Abreu had very clear and obvious hand-eye coordination, and a real feel for contact."
"There's only a certain amount of players in the big leagues that have lightning hands," said White Sox hitting coach Todd Steverson. "You look back at those who had them -- Gary Sheffield had them, Andre Dawson had them, Dave Winfield had them. But when it comes to hitting, it's not always about how fast or hard you can swing, it's about how accurate you are with the barrel. You can have only a fair swing, but if you put the barrel on the ball and are strong enough, it'll go. That's what he does. And let's be clear: He ain't got just fair bat speed. It's above average."
Even so, the industry's focus on Abreu's bat speed might have been the central thing that kept his ultimate contract where it ended up -- which, while a record for both a Cuban player and a member of the White Sox, did not represent a complete shattering of precedent. It was also less than half the $155 million the Yankees committed in total committed to Masahiro Tanaka, the winter's other leading international free agent. (The Yankees, in fact, spent more than two and a half times on Tanaka than what the White Sox did on Abreu, when Tanaka's $20 million posting fee is included.)
"If it hadn't been for those concerns, which have since proved largely unfounded, he would probably have been in the Tanaka nine-figure range," said an executive of one club that liked Abreu but determined it could not afford to bid on him. "From the video I saw, he reminded me a lot of Miggy Cabrera. Which now makes me wonder: If Cabrera was in Cuba putting up stupid numbers at his current age and in his current, somewhat slowed-down physical condition, what would scouts have thought of him? Interesting thought experiment."
Here is another interesting thought experiment: Now that Abreu already seems a bargain a month into his six-year deal, what kind of contract might the next decorated Cuban escapee command? Rick Hahn, the White Sox' general manager, puts the bull market for Cuban hitters into some perspective. "We signed Alexei Ramirez in '08 for 4.25 [million dollars]," Hahn pointed out. "We signed Dayan Viciedo a year later for 10. In 2012, [Jorge] Soler goes to the Cubs for 30, and then Puig goes for 42 right away. Now Abreu. The escalation was so quick in this market for this type of player. Contracts went up 15-fold almost since '08. There is something about Jose having not played in the States that ultimately made people shy away, and you completely get that. In retrospect, thus far, it looks like it's going to be a sound deal. But you still had that unknown."
Now that Abreu, Puig and Cespedes are thriving in the U.S., there remains one Cuban slugger for whom everyone is waiting. He is Alfredo Despaigne, who set the Serie Nacional's home-run record with 32 in 2008-09, lost it to Abreu and Cespedes two seasons later (when both hit 33), but reclaimed it with 36 in 2012 (when Abreu had 35). Despaigne stands just 5-8, some seven inches shorter than Abreu, but he is every bit as powerful, and thanks to his former teammate's precedent, will likely become an even richer man if he decides to come to the United States.
"I don't know, and I don't really ask him about it, as that's a touchy subject," Abreu said when asked whether he thinks Despaigne might follow his path. "But I support him in whatever he needs. We stay in touch. If he needs bats or anything, I support him with that. It was a great experience, those years when we were going back and forth with the home run record. We made a great friendship out of that."
The Cuban government is currently permitting the 27-year-old Despaigne to play with Campeche of the Mexican League, and there remains the chance that he will never endeavor to reach the United States. If he does get to America, though, he could become the first $100 million Cuban. And if anyone demeans his bat speed, it won't give his pursuers any pause at all.