The First of The International Free Agents Signs….With Someone Else
1: With the playoffs still underway, it’s too early to know who’s in the free agency pool. Teams have a few days to submit qualifying offers, and players can mull over taking the money or opting for free agency (as Kendrys Morales evidently will). But international players aren’t subject to these rules, as the collective bargaining agreement obviously doesn’t apply. That’s the reason Jose Abreu’s in the news today – the Cuban slugger reportedly signed a 6-year, $68 million deal with the White Sox – apparently a new record for an international free agent signing.
As Dave’s article (linked above) mentions, the quick success of Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig undoubtedly influenced the market for Abreu, a 1B/DH. Previous imports have often failed to live up to the hype, as all of us who lived through the Yuniesky Betancourt era can attest. The White Sox know this better than most, as their starting LF, Dayan Viciedo, was once a highly anticipated free agent. Viciedo cracked the Cuban national series at the tender age of 15, and was a triple crown threat at 16. A Puig-ish build and plenty of raw power led some to project 30-HR power in the majors. Unfortunately, Viciedo’s in-game power’s been slightly below forecast, and coupled with a lack of patience and uninspiring LF defense, Viciedo’s turned into a ~ replacement level player (albeit one with some upside; he’ll be 25 next season).
Abreu’s shown much more in-game power to date. While Viciedo knocked an impressive 16 HRs in the short Cuban season several years ago, Abreu hit 33 in 2010-11 to set the Cuban record, and upped that to 35 HRs in 11-12 (though Alfredo Despaigne re-took the record with 36).* The season was shortened last year to accomodate the WBC (where Abreu again destroyed so-so pitching), but Abreu is clearly in the top tier of Cuban hitters. Clearly, Abreu can dominate Cuban-league pitching, and he’s been a terror in international competition, but scouts are still split on his ability to handle elite velocity and location. Of course, that’s true of literally anyone- elite velo/location are, by definition, not things that even most MLB pitchers have in their arsenal. Some teams, including the White Sox, think the soon-to-be 27-year old has a short swing that will allow his power to play against anyone. Others think his complicated pre-swing routine and possibly average batspeed will prevent him from squaring up big league pitches. Dave’s post also points out that Abreu will have to hit *a lot* to pay off. As a 1B/DH, he can’t add value as a league-average hitter.
It’s an interesting gamble, and it’ll be fun to watch the White Sox three Cuban players next year – will Abreu help Viciedo develop? Will Alexei Ramirez remember how to hit for power, or is he still frazzled by his up-close encounter with a Tom Wilhelmsen curve ball? The money seems fairly high for a guy with some batspeed questions, but it makes more sense given the paucity of options on the MLB free agent market, and the fact that the White Sox won’t have Paul Konerko’s contract in 2014 (and Adam Dunn’s deal comes off the books after next season). All told, it’s probably a gamble worth taking.
2: The other highly-anticipated international player to hit the US is Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. If you read my article on Wlad Balentien, you’re aware of the “juiced ball” controversy in Japan this year, and how offense was up after two seasons in which pitchers dominated. Gaudy ERAs were more common in 2011-2012, with Yu Darvish’s 1.44 figure (his 5th straight year with an ERA under 2) talked about a lot before he was posted. Try to keep that context in mind when you look at Tanaka’s 2013 numbers here. Tanaka, who turns 25 in a couple of weeks, went 24-0 with an ERA of 1.27 in 212 IP. Those are old-school stats, and the league context is different, and he played for a good team, etc. etc. But this was the year the commissioner resigned due to the ball inflating offense *too much*. Tanaka had an above-average season, is what I’m trying to say.
He may be posted this year, and the Yankees are apparently willing to forget the Kei Igawa experience and go all-in on Tanaka. The Yankees have seen first-hand how a splitter-throwing righty can take the short fences of new Yankee stadium out of play, and they’ve reportedly had scouts watching Tanaka throughout the 2013 season.
The Yankees need pitching, but there’s another reason Tanaka may appeal. While the total outlay to get Tanaka on the team will be significant – Yu Darvish’s $52m posting plus $60m contract is a good starting point – not all of it will count towards the new, more stringent, luxury tax. While the Rangers’ $60m contract to Darvish was breathtaking at first, he’s now making $10m in AAV, less than guys like Andy Pettitte and Ryan Dempster last year. The total will be higher, but the hit to the payroll may come in less than the Tigers’ $80m deal for Anibal Sanchez last year, and will certainly be far below Zack Greinke’s deal. If you have plenty of money to spend but not quite so much that you can afford to blow off the luxury tax, a guy like Tanaka’s perfect.
So why wouldn’t he be perfect for the M’s? The M’s know at least as much about NPB-imports with plus-plus splitters as the Yankees do. Why were they never a serious player for Tanaka (or Abreu, for that matter)? It’s a good question, really. The team has money to spend, and clear needs both in the line-up and the rotation. I think many of us have been more concerned that Zduriencik on a one-year extension had an incentive to focus on 2014, damn the consequences, so it’s a bit odd that they’ve been silent. Of course, everyone knew that Yoenis Cespedes would head to Miami or the Cubs right up until he didn’t; we don’t know where Tanaka will end up, but the M’s haven’t been connected to him at all, just like they weren’t connected to Abreu and weren’t connected to Cuban SS Alexander Guerrero. The M’s haven’t made a splash in the international market; they got Iwakuma for peanuts after shoulder woes tanked his value. I’m not suggesting that they should just to shake things up, but I do wonder how the M’s front office sees guys like Tanaka and Abreu…and, perhaps more importantly, I wonder how they see their own current roster.
3: I know I’ve written about him too much already, but after all the work I put into that post on Michael Wacha, I was stunned to see his approach against the Dodgers. If you missed that post, I looked at his game plan against the Pirates and said he should be very tough on the RH-heavy Dodger line-up. Indeed he was (yay me!), but he utilized an entirely different approach from the one I outlined (you suck, marc w!). Vs. the Pirates, he used his curve to righties ONLY AFTER setting it up with a high fastball. Against the Dodgers, he threw the curve more sparingly, and generally used it to START an at-bat. 7 of the 13 curves he threw came on the first pitch. He looked to change his FB usage as well, throwing it lower – especially to righties. He used his change-up more often to righties like Puig.
Wacha’s still a guy with mid-90s FB velocity and a plus change, so the variation from game to game in his breaking stuff is perhaps to be expected. It’s also not the first time we’ve seen this from Wacha. Down the stretch, he would occasionally shelve his curve and toy with a cutter. But isn’t this contrary to the standard pitching advice of trusting your own stuff and your own gameplan? There are a host of pitchers who don’t do much advance scouting because they care more about their own strengths than they do opponents’ weaknesses. It could be Yadier Molina adjusting his pitch calls both to the team and to Wacha’s command; Wacha again left several hooks high and out of the zone, which suggests he wasn’t releasing them quite right, and his change was great against LA. I still find it fascinating though, and I find it amazing that a guy who the experts saw as a high-floor, low-ceiling guy just a year or two ago is capable of beating playoff teams using three plus pitches. I’m still not clear how Wacha and Allen Craig have had better MLB seasons in 2013 than Danny Hultzen and Justin Smoak. Something’s going on with the Cards’ player development, and I’d like to know what it is.
* The White Sox have another player who once led the Cuban league in HRs for a season, and it’s not Viciedo. It’s SS Alexei Ramirez, who hit 21 HRs in his first year in the majors, but has seen his HR power vanish. He hit 6 all of last year.