With his thick, 260 pound build and 6’4 frame, Cuban first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu, stands next to the 5’11, rail thin Ichiro as Gulliver stood next to the Lilliputians, starkly different and out of place. His cumbersome feet and lead hands would be alien to the fleet footed nine time gold glove award winner, and his upper deck shots are foreign to a player who, in 2004, shattered the 108 year old record for singles in a major league season. Yet this baseball David and Goliath do share one common attribute; they were and are both 27 year old foreigners with once-in-a-generation tools, inhuman stats, and, most importantly for the sake of this comparison, potentially fatal flaws.
For Ichiro, it was his size. A wiry 170 pounds, it was unclear whether or not Ichiro could handle the transition from the 140 game Japan league to MLB’s 162 game schedule. There was also the simple fact that Ichiro was the first of his breed; no Japanese position player had ever played in the big leagues. No one had any idea how Ichiro’s stats, however gaudy (he hit .387 in his last season in the far east), would translate from the NPB into the vastly superior American League, and it seemed almost foolish to spend a combined 27 million dollars on such a question mark. But Ichiro’s speed, defense, and bat were too promising and in 2001, the Mariners did, and they haven’t looked back since.
For Abreu, who recently agreed a 68 million dollar deal with the White Sox, it’s been his bat speed, defense, and athleticism. Abreu has as much raw power as anyone in baseball, having shattered the Cuban home run record multiple times, but Cuban stats are even less reliable than Japanese ones and his bat speed is middling, leading scouts like BA’s Ben Badler and ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick to question whether his power will translate into the major leagues. If it doesn’t, he’ll be in trouble as the highest defensive projection for Abreu is a serviceable first baseman, with Jonah Keri even calling him a potential DH. There are more than a few red flags, but, like Ichiro, his select other worldly tools offer too much fodder for a scout’s imagination, making him worthy of the contract the White Sox gave him.
This is, after all, a player whom assistant A’s GM David Forst once deemed comparable to Ryan Howard, Will he ever actually reach up to that comparison? He might, but its doubtful; statistically, most baseball prospects fail to live up to the hype, but just the quarter chance that he might go well beyond that makes him worth the contract. Sure, there are the Hideki Irabus and the Daisuke Matzuzakas, but every GM who passed on Ichiro, Cespedes, or Puig because of one flaw or another is certainly shaking their head in retrospect. Every year, teams spend upwards of 10 million dollars on 50 draftees and a dozen amateur free agents who have a fraction of Abreu’s potential and almost never pan out, why not invest that all in a single player’s hall of fame potential? Its the strategy of hall of fame Oriole manager Earl Weaver: a three run homer is infinitely rarer but always more valuable than a sacrifice bunt.
With their barren major league roster and deserted farm system, Chicago is perfectly suited to take on this calculated risk. The ball club is deeply deprived of talent on all levels, and they need practically a revolution to get back on track. Farm systems are rarely fertile and teams can wait years, even decades, for the right prospects to develop and rebuilding plans to reach fruition (just ask the Pirates and Royals). And in today’s extension-riddled game, proven superstars can’t just be bought on the open market. Best to grab talent when its there – waiting can be a perpetually long game.