Free agency is still about five months from its full boom, but the most popular free agents are often unearthed before Winter Meetings: foreign players. Those coming over to the MLB are immune to prior contractual standard, arbitration and the opportunity to resign with a former team, making them a top priority for any team in need of an immediate fix. Of course, the danger lays in their unproven talent, and most often a foreign phenom will yield a high asking price – like Yu Darvish’s six-year, $60 million contract.
This year’s hottest market item will be first baseman Jose Abreu, the former Cuban League MVP who had defected from his native home earlier this week in order to become an eligible free agent in this offseason. Abreu is a 26-year old right-handed power hitter who most notably hit 33 home runs in 66 games in the 2010-2011 season. Reports have stated that Abreu’s prowess will yield him greater contract offers than Yoenis Cespedes’ four-year, $36 million or Yasiel Puig’s seven-year, $42 million – meaning that, arguably, the greatest hitter in Cuban League history may have a shorter list of potential suitors than his former teammates had. Regardless, the market will likely be fixated on his recruiting process until he signs, and there are at least five teams who could both sorely need his services and pay him his worth as well. Here’s the top five candidates in the Abreu Sweepstakes, starting from least likely to most:
5: Cleveland Indians. Cleveland is suffering a severe power-outage at first base, with players splitting time there slugging a combined league-worst .349. Mark Reynolds was a part of that problem, hitting .215 before being released yesterday. His salary comes off the books this offseason, as does 42-year old Jason Giambi. Nick Swisher is the Tribe’s resident first baseman, but he’s been as much of a defensive liability there as he is in the outfield. Moving him to a permanent spot as a designated hitter would be beneficiary for both parties, as Swisher is getting paid to be a hitter and Cleveland could use Abreu’s power from the right side of the plate – Swisher switch-hits, and Michael Bourn and Jason Kipnis are lefty hitters. Cleveland, currently 63-56, is fringe-contenders after last offseason’s splurge. They need one more bat to be at least be in wild card contention.
4: Texas Rangers. The biggest problem is that they have adopted Alex Rios’ remaining $25.5 million through 2015. The best cause for them to pick up Abreu is Jeff Baker entering free agency in 2014, as well as Mitch Moreland becoming arbitration-available that year. The loss of Nelson Cruz to Biogenesis suspensions may hurt their pennant run, and he could be released next season therefore. Adrian Beltre is their best hitter under long-term contract by far, and his presence could ease the responsibility of Abreu immediately. For five years, the Rangers have been big spenders, and still have no hardware to show for it. Abreu could be their last push towards a ring – they’re slowly fading to younger AL squads.
3: New York Mets. Ike Davis has been one of the biggest liabilities of any position player in the NL, hitting .220 since 2012. While he has shown flashes of impressive power-hitting, the last thing the Mets need after the failures of Jason Bay and Davis is an unsure thing at cleanup. David Wright is proving at his prime that he is more suitable as a spray-hitting run producer than he is a free-swinging power hitter. What he’s missed since his last MVP-caliber season in 2008 is a slugger with the stature of Carlos Beltran hitting behind him. New York shopped for Giancarlo Stanton this season, but their asking price of Zack Wheeler was far too severe for the Mets to bite. The starting pitching could be a top-five rotation within two years, and a lineup of Juan Lagares, Daniel Murphy, Wright and Abreu would boast enough variety to actually support the aces. Both Marlon Byrd and Davis may be let go this winter to make room for another Mets gamble in Abreu.
2: New York Yankees. It’s not a list of big spenders without the most notorious of them. The Yankees’ offense was devastated by injuries to Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and even Alex Rodriguez. The team is bottom-ten for runs scored for the first time in nearly a decade, and the only thing keeping them afloat is rigid veteran pitching. Last offseason was strangely quiet for New York, and that will certainly change this year when Travis Hafner, Kevin Youkilis, Andy Pettite, Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera’s combined $51 million due comes off the books – out of that group, it’s uncertain who will retire, re-sign or walk. Also, a potential full-season Rodriguez suspension would give the Yankees the option of withholding his $26 million due next season. That’s the sound of cap space clearing up.
Yes, a healthy Teixeira is the best option at first base, but don’t hold it past Brian Cashman to make a few deals to clear up room for Abreu anywhere they could put him – outfield included. The Yankees are ancient, and while Cashman and the Steinbrenners have put off rebuilding for pennant races since the mid-90’s, a young phenom like Abreu could supply some warranted future insurance.
1: Milwaukee Brewers. Juan Francisco is the team’s only current first baseman – and he’s not even a first baseman. Original starter Mat Gamel failed to deliver before injury, and Corey Hart had filled the void until requiring knee surgery in early July. Francisco was brought in from Atlanta for prospects, and has done enough to keep himself in the everyday lineup for the last-place team. In itself, the Brewers’ season is lost: Carlos Gomez’s MVP run will go unnoticed after the most recent Ryan Braun scandal, and the brilliance of Jean Segura and Norichika Aoki is lost in the disappointing starting pitching. The rotation has been a recurring issue for this decade’s slugging Brewers squad, and the addition of Kyle Lohse did little to quell it.
Essentially, this is the point where Milwaukee should look at a talent like Abreu and say, “Why not?” Their franchise player’s name is tarnished, the top of the lineup is superb and there’s a gaping hole at the position he plays. Why not? There’s currently not enough available pitching to genuinely make the Brewers contenders with the Reds, Cardinals and Pirates next season, so why not stuff the lineup like they had in 2011? Why not swap out the flailing Rickie Weeks and let Hart walk so hitters one-through-eight are on full stage for any contender looking to buy next July? Why not glorify the team’s best asset –hitting – to force teams to help rebuild their core, while making the apparently greatest Cuban hitter of all time the biggest attraction over one of the biggest liars of this decade in professional sports? Why not, Milwaukee? Why not?