Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu has come to terms with the Chicago White Sox on a six-year, $68 million contract that is the richest deal ever signed, pending a physical, by an international free agent, besting the six-year, $56 million contract the Rangers gave Yu Darvish in January 2012. Abreu, who will turn 27 at the end of January, is a big-bodied (6-foot-2, 250-plus pounds) first baseman whose only asset is his righthanded bat, but his talent at the plate has earned him the sobriquet "The Cuban Barry Bonds," with some suggesting that he is one of the best hitters in any country in any league.
Abreu, whose , while contract will not count against the White Sox' international signing limit, defected in August, established residency in Haiti and was cleared to sign with any major league team in late September. He hit .382/.535/.735 with 13 homers in 42 games in his final season in Cuba's Serie Nacional, the island's top league. That season was interrupted by his participation in this year's World Baseball Classic, during which he hit .360/.385/.760 with three home runs. Abreu's signature performance, however, came in the 2010-2011 season (Serie Nacional is a winter league). That season, he hit an outrageous .453/.597/.986 with 33 home runs in 293 plate appearances, a performance that former Baseball Prospectus statistician Clay Davenport calculated would have translated to a .380/.493/.806 line in the major leagues and a 70-plus homer pace over a full season (thus the nickname).
Abreu won't put up those kinds of numbers for the White Sox. Indeed, you can find plenty of scouts who have doubts about his ability to hit major league pitching. However, you can also find plenty who think that Abreu will be an immediate star in the major leagues. Given the recent success of his countrymen Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Kendrys Morales, Yunel Escobar, Jose Iglesias and fellow White Sox Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo (not to mention Aroldis Chapman, who gives us an idea of the quality of the pitching in Cuba), all of whom came to the majors as younger and less-accomplished players, I find the latter easier to believe.
An extensive (and effusive) look at Abreu by Grantland's Jonah Keri in February 2012 put Abreu's ceiling at "Miguel Cabrera" (effectively: the best hitter in baseball) and his more likely major league level at Ryan Howard, who, at the age Abreu is now, hit .268/.392/.582 with 47 home runs. Indeed, the one thing the scouts are nearly unanimous about with regard to Abreu is his power, which is widely described as elite. With Abreu playing 81 games in hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, 30 home runs seems like a lock. The question is how much average and how many walks (and hit-by-pitches, a significant aspect of his on-base percentage in Cuba) will accompany those home runs. Given that, his worst-case scenario might be Pedro Alvarez, who led the National League with 36 home runs this year, but with a .233 average and .296 OBP.
The White Sox could certainly do worse, and if Abreu comes anywhere close to those projections, $11.3 million a year for a middle-of-the-order bat in his age-27 to -32 seasons could look like a bargain, particularly for a team that is desperate for offense. As I wrote in our "Wait 'Til Next Year" series, Chicago's offense was the source of all its misery in its just-completed last-place campaign. With the major league free agent pool thinning out due to the new trend toward contract extensions, and few if any expendable trade chits in the system, the White Sox needed to get creative. Incumbent firstbaseman Paul Konerko, coming off a .244/.313/.355 performance, takes $13.5 million off the books this winter as a free-agent and designated hitter Adam Dunn will remove an additional $15 million from the team's payroll after the 2014 season. Their possible or certain departures and the resulting money saved means Abreu couldn't be a better fit. Abreu and 22-year-old rightfielder Avisail Garcia, who hit .304/.327/.447 in 168 plate appearances after coming over from the Tigers in the three-way deal that sent Jake Peavy to Boston, give the White Sox hope that their emerging young rotation, led by lefties Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Hector Santiago might actually get some run support in 2014. To have acquired those two pieces before most teams have even lit the hot stove is impressive work by Rick Hahn, who was promoted to general manager a little less than a year ago. With Chicago coming off a 99-loss season in which they were outscored by every team except the Marlins, Abreu's contract comes with little risk despite its record-breaking value.