Cuban First Baseman Jose Abreu is the Perfect Pirates Off-Season Target

Pittsburgh_Pirates10Rob Biertempfel reported yesterday that the Pittsburgh Pirates have been scouting Cuban defector Jose Abreu, and will attend a showcase he will hold in September. The Pirates have been mentioned in the past with Cuban players, but they have never been serious bidders. Most of the international signings the Pirates make are off the radar players like Starling Marte ($85,000), Alen Hanson ($150,000) or Gregory Polanco ($75,000).

Baseball America profiled Abreu, and broke down what needs to happen before he can sign. Basically he needs to establish residency in another country, be declared eligible as an MLB free agent, and then he’s able to sign. Because he’s 26 years old, he wouldn’t count against a team’s international budget, which could drive up the price. Jeff Passan speculated that the bidding could reach $60 M+.

On the surface this move would make sense for the Pirates. Abreu is projected to be a potential power hitter who can hit 30 homers a year. That’s not the consensus, as some scouts do question his ability to translate over to hit Major League pitching. But with Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig having success in the majors, it’s hard not to dream about Abreu seeing that same success. First base is one of few positions where the Pirates could use a short-term upgrade, and where they don’t have a lot of strong long-term options. So is Abreu the perfect fit for the Pirates?

The Internal Options

The Pirates have been going with a platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez this year. Sanchez has held up his end of the platoon by crushing lefties. Jones has struggled against right-handers this year, possibly showing signs of age. Both players have two years of arbitration remaining beyond the 2013 season.

Jones is making $4.5 M this year, and will probably be in line for at least $6 M next year, even after the down season. Arbitration looks at your entire career, so the down year won’t impact Jones as much.

Sanchez is making $1.75 M this year, and could be looking at $3 M next year, and possibly more than that.

In total, the Pirates could be paying $9 M or more for their platoon. Typically you platoon guys like Jones and Sanchez because you can’t get a better option, and you’re going for value. At $9 M in 2014, and probably a few million higher in 2015, you’re probably better off spending a bit more to try and get an everyday player. Or just going with cheaper internal options. Or signing a 26-year-old Cuban power hitter.

In the pipeline, the Pirates have a few options, but no top guys who you can pencil in starting next year. Andrew Lambo could be the next Garrett Jones, but he needs to make that jump to the majors first. Also, he’d be more valuable in right field until Gregory Polanco arrives.

Alex Dickerson is the top first base option, and is having a huge second half. I could see him staying in Altoona to start the 2014 season, much like Brock Holt, Jordy Mercer, Andrew Lambo, and others have done after less than a full season of success. He could still reach the majors in 2014, much like all of those other guys did, despite starting that same year in Double-A. But a more conservative path has him ready in 2015, if he does make it. His Altoona teammate, Justin Howard, is hitting well, but he doesn’t have enough power to be a starting option.

Stetson Allie has a ton of power, but also has a ton of strikeouts and isn’t anywhere close to being penciled into a major league roster over the next few years.

There’s the “move Josh Bell to first base” camp, but that’s not a good idea at the moment. For one, you don’t need to move Bell until you have three long-term outfielders in the majors. Second, you don’t need to move Bell until he’s close to the majors and the only way to get him in the majors is by changing positions. That’s not the case right now. Bell also won’t be ready until 2016-2017, assuming a level per year.

In short, there aren’t many internal options. It’s possible Lambo could immediately become the next Garrett Jones, or Dickerson could make it as a starting option in the majors. But that combo isn’t as strong of a bet as saying Gregory Polanco is the third starting outfielder of the future. If the Pirates added Abreu, they wouldn’t be blocking anyone.

The Roster and the Payroll

The Pirates can definitely afford Abreu. Their guaranteed payroll the next four years is $25.25 M, $14 M, $17.5 M, and $14.25 M. That doesn’t include arbitration numbers for guys like Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Mark Melancon, and guys who will be arbitration eligible at the tail end of that span like Jeff Locke and Starling Marte. You also have to figure that the Pirates will need to replace some of the current guys like A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and others who could leave via free agency. Some of those players might return, and some spots might be filled internally.

The Pirates do have a lot of young players, with a lot of cost-controlled contracts over the next four years. From 2014-2017, the following players have just 1-2 years of arbitration, or less.

Vic Black

Gerrit Cole

Brandon Cumpton

Andrew Lambo

Jeff Locke

Starling Marte

Jordy Mercer

Bryan Morris

Stolmy Pimentel

Tony Sanchez

Duke Welker

Justin Wilson

That list doesn’t include prospects who could come up in that span, which is a list that includes Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, Tyler Glasnow, Alen Hanson, and pretty much any other prospect in the top three levels right now.

Not all of the above players will be impact players, but a lot of the above players will be Major League quality players who can keep costs down. That will give the Pirates some flexibility to add payroll. When you also include the extra $20-25 M that each team will get starting next season for the National TV deals, the Pirates would have even more money.

The Team Needs

Let’s take a look at the team needs for the next few years, to get an idea of what other positions the Pirates need to upgrade.

C – Russell Martin is in Pittsburgh through 2014, and Tony Sanchez should be ready to take over after that. Reese McGuire wouldn’t be up until 2017 at the earliest.

1B – We’ve been over this above.

2B – Neil Walker is under control through the 2016 season, although he’s looking like a platoon player. The Pirates could fill his spot with a prospect down the line, like Dilson Herrera or Alen Hanson/Jordy Mercer.

SS – Jordy Mercer took over as the starter this year. Alen Hanson has more upside, but if it comes down to a middle infield of Hanson and Mercer, it might be best to put Mercer here for his defense.

3B – Pedro Alvarez is under control through the 2016 season, and the Pirates don’t have a lot of options after that.

LF – Starling Marte has plenty of control left. Also, don’t get caught up on where the outfielders are positioned.

CF – Andrew McCutchen is under control through the 2018 season.

RF – This is a short-term hole, but Gregory Polanco could be up as soon as mid-season 2014 to help out.

Starting Pitching – A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are eligible for free agency after the season. I could see Rodriguez exercising his player option to stick around. It’s also possible Burnett could stick around. Francisco Liriano is a free agent after the 2014 season, and he won’t stick around with this level of performance. The Pirates will have guys like Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, Tyler Glasnow, and more coming up in the next 1-3 years, so they should be able to replace any departing free agents. Finding the next Burnett/Wandy/Liriano bounce back special wouldn’t hurt.

Relief Pitching – Do we need to talk about this with Huntington’s track record?

The Pirates are good in the short-term with every position except first base and right field. In the long-term the needs are first base and third base, although the latter starts in 2017. Second base could also be a long-term need as Walker gets more expensive, and less valuable as a platoon option. But that could be filled from within, unlike first base.

There’s another team need that we’re not talking about here: lineup construction. Abreu is a right-handed power hitter. Currently the Pirates have Andrew McCutchen batting third, and Pedro Alvarez batting fourth. That sets up a lot of situations late in games where teams can pitch around McCutchen and bring in a lefty specialist to face Alvarez. If you add a right-handed hitter between those two, you help reduce that strategy. But none of the current options on the roster could really fit in that cleanup spot. Abreu could be the right-handed power bat to add some variety to the lineup, especially when Gregory Polanco (left-handed) eventually gets added to the mix. Think about this lineup in 2015-2016:

1. Alen Hanson, SS

2. Gregory Polanco, LF

3. Andrew McCutchen, CF

4. Jose Abreu, 1B

5. Pedro Alvarez, 3B

6. Starling Marte, RF

7. Tony Sanchez, C

8. Neil Walker/Jordy Mercer Platoon, 2B

You could probably flip a few people around there and go with your own combo, but that’s a pretty dynamic lineup. Of course most of those guys are already in the system, and while they aren’t guarantees, they are strong bets. But who wouldn’t want to add another potential 30 home run hitter to that group? You could potentially get 150+ home runs from the 2-6 spots in the lineup. The Pirates as a team this year have 117, which ranks 5th in the NL.

What Kind of Deal Could Abreu Receive?

In the last few years we’ve seen several top Cuban players sign huge contracts. Pretty much all of those players have lived up to the hype. There are really two players who we can use to get an idea of what Abreu could command. The contracts are via Cot’s.

Yoenis Cespedes (26 when signed) – 4 years/$36 M (Can become Article XX(B) free agent after 2015 season)

Yasiel Puig (21) – 7 years/$42 M (May opt into arbitration once he earns 3 years of MLB service time, which at this point looks like it would be after the 2016 season when he’s set to make $6.5 M and $7.5 M in his final two years. Arbitration could be higher.)

Puig’s deal looks better in so many ways. He has the chance to earn more money than the $42 M guaranteed to him, but he’s under control for the full six years of service time. By comparison, Cespedes is only under control for four years. Considering Abreu is 26, like Cespedes, I could see him getting a similar deal. And if that deal is for $60 M, then you’re talking about $15 M per year for a guy who has never seen a Major League pitch. If you get him for the full six years, then that $60 M isn’t as bad. But what are the alternatives?

The 2014 Free Agent Market

As an alternative to Abreu, let’s look at the upcoming free agent market. The free agent market for first basemen this coming off-season isn’t that strong. Here is the list, via MLBTR:

Corey Hart (32)
Todd Helton (40)
Eric Hinske (36)
Xavier Nady (35)
Mike Napoli (32)
Paul Konerko (38)
Casey Kotchman (31)
Adam Lind (30) – $7MM club option with a $2MM buyout
James Loney (30)
Kendrys Morales (30)
Justin Morneau (33)
Mike Morse (32)
Lyle Overbay (37)
Carlos Pena (36)
Mark Reynolds (30)
Kevin Youkilis (35)

Most of those names aren’t starting options. The only guys who could be considered starters are Corey Hart (coming off a major injury), Mike Napoli (injury issues and more of a DH), and Kendrys Morales (having a good season with Seattle). James Loney might also get some attention with the year he’s having with the Rays.

Last year wasn’t a good market either. The top guys were Nick Swisher, Adam LaRoche, and Mark Reynolds. Swisher got four years and $56 M. LaRoche got two years and $24 M. Reynolds got a one year, $6 M deal.

Going back to Abreu’s potential salary, if Adam LaRoche is getting $12 M a year these days, then $15 M a year for Abreu at 26 doesn’t sound bad. There’s still the fact that Abreu hasn’t hit MLB pitching yet. However, it’s not like the market is going to be flooded with options. I could see Abreu costing just as much as the above names, and almost all of those guys come with their own risks.

Should the Pirates Try to Sign Abreu?

Yes.

There are a lot of factors to consider here. First of all, any time this situation comes up, everyone is an optimist. Everyone believes that a guy like Abreu is guaranteed to reach his upside, even though some scouts doubt he will succeed. I would be one of those optimists. There are always going to be scouts who doubt whether a top prospect from another country can play in the majors. The thing is, no one ever doubts the guys who are already in the league. Corey Hart is no more of a guarantee than Abreu. Neither is Mike Napoli or Kendrys Morales.

I will say that, like all of you, I’m only a guy who has seen a few YouTube videos and read a lot of positive reports on Abreu. So that’s the extent of my scouting in this instance. The Pirates have been very successful scouting international players, especially international hitters. Huntington was quoted in Biertempfel’s article saying the Pirates like him, so that’s a good sign that they’re not on the side that questions his abilities.

It’s not as simple as the Pirates deciding whether they want him, then just going out and spending the money. They’re still going to have to compete with other teams, and the Pirates can only spend so much, even with the payroll space and the extra money coming in. But the Pirates have enough payroll space to be competitive in this case. They also have very few needs — with first base being one of those — and very few internal options, so this is a case where it makes sense to spend.

If Abreu gets a Cespedes type deal, where he’s only signed for four years, that makes things less appealing. But if he comes in and immediately makes an impact, you’re not going to be focused on the price per year. The only focus will be on the fact that he’s ONLY under control for that amount of time. Also, this could give the Pirates some time to develop from within. If during that four year period the Pirates find an internal option who can replace Abreu, they could deal Abreu for a huge return and use his money to fill another hole on the team. If the Pirates can get him for the full six years of service time, and at that speculated $60 M price, then absolutely do it. But I have a feeling that’s unrealistic, since Abreu would have enough leverage with this weak free agent market to demand a deal similar to Cespedes, and for more money.

The Pirates have the need at first base, and that’s one of few needs they have. They have the money to spend, and once again, they don’t have a lot of areas where they need to spend that money. They don’t have good internal options for the short-term or the long-term. In the short-term you’re talking about two years and about $20 M for the Jones/Sanchez platoon. That’s a third of the way to Abreu. In the long-term, there are promising prospects, but none that look like guarantees. The free agent market is weak, and doesn’t offer anyone that looks safer than Abreu. In total, even if it would require a four year deal, signing Abreu would make total sense for the Pirates. They still need to compete with other teams for his services, but there’s no reason why they can’t be going heavily after him, much like how Oakland went after Cespedes and landed him.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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