Major League Baseball has been impervious to bubbles, but there have been plenty of unsustainable trends inside the game. The formerly undervalued asset becomes more expensive than he/it should be, and teams are left holding the bag. It's hard to see it while it's happening, because otherwise teams wouldn't make that mistake.
On the surface, the White Sox's reported signing of a 26-year-old Cuban first baseman (and first baseman only) on Thursday night flirts with that line of demarcation.
Yoenis Cespedes has been worth his four-year, $36 million contract. Yasiel Puig looks even better at seven years and $42 million. The White Sox are hoping to ride that upswing by signing Jose Dariel Abreu for six years and $68 million.
Compared to relative newcomers Cespedes and Puig, Abreu's game is as well-scouted as a Cuban's can be. But thanks to his build (6'3", 250 lbs.), it's also the most limited. His value rides on his bat, and while everybody agrees Abreu has poop-your-pants power, but it's unclear how he can use it.
At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Abreu’s strength helps him generate raw power that earns grades of 70 to 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, by far his best tool. He’s an intelligent hitter who can hit the ball out of the park to all fields when he gets his arms extended or when pitchers make a mistake with an offspeed pitch over the plate.
While Abreu’s power is unquestioned, the scouting community is split over whether his power will translate against major league pitching. Some scouts consider his bat speed to be only average at best, which combined with the way his hitting mechanics have him crowd the plate and cut himself off has left him vulnerable to good fastballs on the inner third of the plate. Some scouts have also noted a tendency to chase hard sliders off the plate.
Despite these noteworthy concerns, though, nobody is laughing at Rick Hahn right now. Not after seeing Puig and Cespedes help drive their teams to postseason appearances in their rookie seasons, and especially since Abreu's track record in the Serie Nacional is better, and for longer.
Jonah Keri wrote about Abreu's statistical record in Cuba's top league in February ... of 2012. In the piece, he explained that Abreu's stats, when run through Baseball Prospectus co-founder Clay Davenport's translator, basically break the model. And it's not like the Davenport numbers can be completely brushed away, because:
Abreu's in news, so here's his Davenport Translation (biggest sample): .321/.446/.660. DT for Cespedes .271/.338/.489 (real: 265/.324/.472)— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) October 17, 2013
Nobody should expect Abreu to turn U.S. Cellular Field into late-'90s Coors Field, but he is to be taken seriously. And considering The Cell should've had a tent over the top of it -- circus or fumigation, take your pick -- the White Sox seriously need serious talent.
This is their best shot at getting better quicker. There is risk involved -- it's a serious cash commitment that could leave them with a Hummer while everybody else is buying hybrids -- but cash should be least of our concerns. The lack of strings attached takes a lot of the bite out of the downside.
It really is only money.
$68 million is $68 million, but its year-to-year impact on the payroll may not be what the average annual value suggests.
For instance, $12 million of Puig's seven-year, $42 million contract was tied up in a signing bonus. He made $2 million this year, and he'll make $4.5 million in 2014, and his annual value tops out at $7.5 million in 2018 (although arbitration will likely overwrite it).
Should Abreu get an eight-figure bonus, that money didn't come from nowhere. But with Jake Peavy, Alex Rios and Matt Thornton off the books, a significant up-front sum can be absorbed easier this year than in others.
Moreover, this is the only megadeal the White Sox could strike (at least for a position player) that wouldn't cost them 1) a chunk of their international budget, or 2) a draft pick. Abreu is older than 23 and has logged more than three years of Serie Nacional play, so he's exempt from the pool rules.
The free agent market is as thin as Abreu isn't.
The Giants were one of the initial teams hot on Abreu, and Grant Brisbee at McCovey Chronicles had followed him with interest. After tonight's news, he's temporarily, and in a limited fashion, "jealous" of White Sox fans, because a lot of the league is in this boat:
If you want power, though, Abreu was pretty much it. That's why he got $68 million. And when Jose Abreu goes somewhere else, the odds of Nelson Cruz coming to San Francisco go up, even if incrementally.
Suddenly, Curtis Granderson looks really, really good on a four-year deal ...
Gross. He'd so have 12 home runs in AT&T Park over the life of the contract.
This free-agent market is all gross, at least for hitters.
The White Sox needed power. They hit just 148 homers in 2013, their worst single-season total since 1992. They were outhomered at The Cell 98-81, which undermines most of their home-field advantage. And they enter 2014 with no reliable power source -- sure, Adam Dunn hit 34 homers, but he also slugged .395 after the break, and might've been holding the bat by the wrong end in September.
Abreu allows them to dream about turning the corner to sock some dingers in a post-Paul Konerko landscape, with dreams of Avisail Garcia and Dayan Viciedo tagging along. They haven't been able to develop such a core threat themselves. Speaking of which...
He's not blocking anybody.
Here's the list of the Sox first-base prospects closest to the majors.
Wilkins could have been a September call-up last season, but the Sox didn't feel the need. Black is 26 and hasn't yet tasted Triple-A. Barnum has the most moldable talent, but he nearly has as many injuries as professional homers. His best-case scenario has him ready for a long look in 2017, but "best-case scenario" is a foreign concept to him, given what he's been through.
Abreu stands a great chance at being the White Sox's best value at first base for four years, and maybe over the duration of his entire contract. Suddenly, six years doesn't seem that long.
Sure, it might end up feeling like an eternity, but for the moment, the Sox are ahead of their time. They got a jump on the best potential power source on the market, and if his numbers resemble the Davenport projections in the slightest, they'll have a future at one position that used to be the deadest of ends. They'll need to flip over a few more roster spots to really get it going, but few outside acquisitions these days offer the hope of such a thunderous transition.