Cuban Crossovers: Jose Abreu

While a number of Central American countries have had their marked impact on baseball over the years, it seems defected Cuban players have recently attracted the most attention in the western hemisphere in terms of potential.
There is sometimes a tendency to over-hype international players, especially when the comparison is made based on Cuba’s somewhat spotty statistics, but the scouting is generally solid, and a number of recent signings have worked out for Major League clubs.
This week I’ll write a series on a number of high-profile Cuban players who defected to the MLB.
We’ll start with a recent sensation, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu.

Abreu is just one of the latest examples of an international star whose potential scored him a large contract with a big-league club. Abreu was signed at $68 million through 2019 in a six-year deal. At 27 years old, this contract will take him right through his prime years.

Anticipated to be a middle-of-the-order first baseman, much was expected offensively in his first year. He hasn’t disappointed, establishing himself as one of the league’s biggest power threats.

To give some frame of reference for reasonable predictions, here are some projections from before the start of the season, via FanGraphs:

Jose Abreu’s 2014 Statistical Projections (Steamer, ZIPS)
Steamer 398 17 25 63 11.0% 18.9% .272 .279 .384
ZIPS 538 23 26 65 10.6% 17.1% .273 .288 .371

With no MLB statistical data to work with, these systems did capture the type of player Abreu would become. They did not, however, fully realize his statistical potential in his rookie season.

Abreu needs more than 100 plate appearances to reach Steamer’s projected 398 PA, yet he sits at the projection level for doubles, home runs, and RBI. His projected walk rate was twice its current state; his projected strikeout rate, significantly lower. His batting average is in the right range, though, and despite the low walk rate, he’s one of the better American League hitters in weighted on-base average, hanging around .400.

The only thing ZIPs seems to have estimated better than Steamer is his total PA. With half the year left to go, Abreu would exceed that total at his current clip and double up the totals for 2B, HR, and RBI. Such it is in the business of projecting stats for first-year players.

Abreu is the power bat the White Sox expected, and as long as his production continues, the signing will have been worth the money. Despite a DL stint from May 18-June 1, Abreu is on pace to beat Mark McGwire’s rookie record of 49 home runs. The 27-year old rookie strikes again.

But along with the good does come the bad. Abreu’s strikeout and walk rates are poor, at 5.8 and 24.3 percent, respectively. Those are not currently huge concerns, though, as he leads the league in both home runs (tied) and slugging percentage. In that regard, he’s a traditional power hitter.

His fielding was also never expected to be one of his strong suits. That part has held up. He has a defensive wins above replacement rating of -0.6, costing the Sox two runs in defense this year. Given the expectation that he wouldn’t be a great fielder and his 24 offensive runs above replacement, that’s not a glaring number.

Expectation does not always meet reality when international players make the move to the U.S. When Boston signed Daisuke Matsuzaka, they certainly expected more from the Japanese pitcher. But the scouting seems to be fairly solid on the whole for big-name international talent.

For multiple reasons, it isn’t easy to scout Cuban players, but the White Sox got exactly what they paid for in this Cuban star — a barely serviceable (defensively) first baseman who leads the American League in slugging. That’s not something you find every day. If he keeps it up, the White Sox got themselves a hell of a slugger in Jose Abreu.


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