Jose Abreu defects Cuba; should the Yankees pursue him?

Koji Watanabe

Abreu was better at hitting baseballs in Cuba than Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. So... profit?

Last night, slugging Cuban first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu reportedly defected from Cuba and is currently hiding somewhere in the Caribbean. The process to become an international free agent in another country is not short. Ben Badler at Baseball America states that Abreu must establish residency in another country like Haiti or the Dominican Republic, get the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to clear him to sign, then have MLB declare him a free agent. It will take several months, but numerous MLB teams will be interested in Abreu.

Abreu has been absolutely outstanding in the Cuban Serie Nacional league over the past decade since beginning his career in 2003-04. He's 26 years old, a righthanded hitter, and Baseball America ranked him the #4 player among all who participated in the World Baseball Classic last March unsigned by MLB teams. In the tournament, he hit .360/.385/.760 with three homers in 25 at-bats (those dingers were monster shots at the Tokyo Dome). He has "tremendous raw power to all fields" and would easily become the best first baseman on the free agent market in a weak class led by Mike Napoli. Check out his incredible numbers in Cuba over the past few years:

Season Games HR BB K AVG OBP SLG
Jose Abreu 2012-13 42* 13 37 21 .382 .535 .735
Jose Abreu 2011-12 71 35 75 40 .394 .542 .837
Jose Abreu 2010-11 66 33 58 32 .453 .597 .986
Jose Abreu 2009-10 82 30 74 49 .399 .555 .822

Bold = Led league *= Shortened season due to WBC

The numbers must be taken with a grain of salt since scouts have evaluated the Serie Nacional as a league with talent somewhere around the High-A level and there have been underwhelming players like Leslie Anderson, who succeeded in Cuba but not in the United States. Nonetheless, the statistics are certainly fantastic and they are better than what Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig posted in that league.

It's probable that he will sign the biggest contract for a Cuban player yet. Since the beginning of 2012, talented Cuban prospects have done very well for themselves on the open market: 26-year-old Cespedes received four years and $36 million from the Athletics, 21-year-old Puig got seven years and $42 million from the Dodgers, and 20-year-old Jorge Soler got nine years and $30 million from the Cubs. Abreu is a better player than all of them, though he's not as young as Puig and Soler. He's going to receive a nice deal whenever he's ready.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, they are locked into an expensive deal with another first baseman until 2016. Mark Teixeira is owed $22.5 million per year from 2014-16 and is basically limited to either first base or DH. The Yankees could make a run at Abreu and make him the primary DH while the superior fielder Tex plays first base, but Abreu could very well prefer to play the field. It's doubtful that he would he even want to enter a situation where playing time is unclear? Matthew Pouliot at Hardball Talk notes that the Red Sox and Rangers would seem to be more attractive destinations with the potential for big contracts and more clear openings at first base. (Pouliot also mentions the Mets, Blue Jays, White Sox, and Mariners as possible as well, but longer shots.)

Even though it seems unlikely that they could get him unless they pulled a dumptruck full of money up to his house, the Yankees should still make an effort to acquire Abreu. There would be a surplus of hard-hitting first baseman/DH types, but for a player as talented as Abreu, it would be worth figuring something out to accommodate him, Teixeira, and any other players who need to DH from time to time.

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