Baseball's Cuban influence resonates daily in the achievements of some wondrous talents in the field and on the mound. It's evident in Aroldis Chapman's triple-digit radar-gun readings in Cincinnati and Jose Fernandez's extraordinary four-pitch repertoire in Miami. Yasiel Puig is a magnet for attention and jersey sales in Los Angeles and Yoenis Cespedes has become a pivotal figure in the middle of Oakland's batting order.
Jose Dariel Abreu, the latest Cuban-born player intent on pursuing a new life in the majors, defected in August and took up residence in the Dominican Republic. Now he's navigating the obligatory red tape with help from Bart Hernandez, who has guided Jorge Soler, Leonys Martin, Adeiny Hechavarria and other Cuban players through the transition to the majors as an agent with the Praver-Shapiro group.
Abreu, 26, flirted with two Triple Crowns in the Cuban National Series league, where he established his credentials as a 30-homer man and middle-of-the-order force. He hit .360 with three homers and nine RBIs in six games during the World Baseball Classic in March, and the buzz has continued to grow in anticipation of the free-agent chase that's about to unfold. Sources told ESPN.com that he will begin auditioning for clubs in the Dominican later this month.
Cespedes recently told USA Today that Abreu shares some attributes with Miguel Cabrera, another former shortstop who outgrew the position and flourished as baseball's best hitter. "If he had just a tad more speed, he would be a complete player," Cespedes told the paper.
The scouting community is more restrained in its evaluation. We interviewed four talent evaluators with extensive international experience for this story. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, they provided their takes on Abreu and the attributes he brings to the table.
What kind of hitter is Abreu?
Multiple scouts used the term "slider-speed bat" in reference to Abreu. Translation: He might be challenged against pitchers who can crowd him with fastballs on the inner half of the plate.
But Abreu hangs in the box -- as evidenced by his Shin-Soo Choo-like HBP totals -- and his power is undeniable. He's not quite Giancarlo Stanton, who merits a "90" on the 20-80 scouts scale as a long-ball threat. But his raw power compares favorably with Puig, Cespedes and White Sox outfielder Dayan Viciedo, who all have the ability to scatter clouds when they catch a ball just right.
"He has monstrous power," said a scout who began following Abreu at the 2009 IBAF World Cup.
One talent evaluator said Abreu could step into a big league lineup tomorrow and hit .260 with 25 home runs. That's not far from what Cespedes is doing in Oakland this season. Another expressed concern that Abreu looks "confused" against breaking balls and thought he could benefit from a little seasoning in the upper minors. Once Abreu gets the hang of major league pitching, the consensus is that he has the strength to hit 30 homers by accident.
"If you throw him 90-92 [mph] inside, he gets beat a lot," said a scout for a National League club. "I don't think he's going to hit a good hard fastball in. But there's a lot of marginal pitching out there. The No. 1 and 2 starters are going to get him out, but he's going to feast on the 3, 4 and 5 guys. That's where he's going to make his money.
"His swing is thick and sort of stiff. His front arm gets kind of rigid, and it's more a strength swing than a real quick bat. But he's a smart hitter, and he's not just up there swinging out of his butt. He's crafty. I think he'll make the adjustments."
How do the other aspects of his game stack up?
Abreu is a below-average runner and a base clogger. His arm is adequate, and most scouts think he has the attributes to be a serviceable defensive first baseman. It's probably a stretch to think he can make the switch to third base or a corner outfield spot.
"He's deceptive," said an NL scout. "He's a better athlete at first base than he looks like. He's fine with balls in the dirt and a little quicker and more agile than you'd expect. He could be a solid first baseman, I think."
Does Abreu have a major league comparable?
This is a popular exercise with scouts, who generally make comparisons based on a player's ethnicity, body type or hitting mechanics. Naturally, the Latin scouts who've seen Abreu are inclined to compare him to his fellow Cuban sluggers.
"Hitting-wise, he reminds me a lot of Dayan Viciedo," said a scout. "He's just not as athletic. This guy has more power than Kendrys Morales. But Morales is a better hitter for me."
A second evaluator compares Abreu with Angels prospect C.J. Cron, a former first-round pick who hit .274 with 14 home runs in the Double-A Texas League this season. And another scout told Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that Abreu has "Pedro Alvarez-type power with more hit-ability and the same body type, too."
Are there any red flags?
Puig isn't especially popular in scouting circles because of his diva tendencies. Abreu is generally described as more grounded and a "good kid."
The concerns about Abreu (beyond the debates over his ability) seem relatively minor. He displayed more patience at the plate in Cuba than he did against better pitching in high-profile international tournaments. And at 6-feet-2, 258 pounds, he's not going to be posing for any baseball swimsuit calendars.
"He's a little bit of a dead-body guy," said a scout who saw Abreu in the WBC.
It's noteworthy that the same concerns were expressed about Puig by critics who wondered why the Dodgers would give $42 million to an outfielder who was heavy and out of shape. As anyone who's seen Puig this summer will attest, he's the furthest thing from out of shape.
Abreu already appears to have ramped up his conditioning as a prelude to his late-September showcase.
"He's a thick-framed guy," said a Latin scout for an NL club. "But I just saw him in person and he was in the best shape I've ever seen. He's trimmed down a lot."
Where could he land?
Which teams have the financial wherewithal and the need for a right-handed power bat to make a run at Abreu?
Texas and Boston are at the top of everybody's list. The Rangers' offense has been a disappointment this season, and general manager Jon Daniels will need to reshape his lineup with Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman approaching free agency. Boston's interest could hinge on where GM Ben Cherington decides to go with Mike Napoli this winter.
Several other clubs appear intrigued. San Francisco GM Brian Sabean reportedly took a look at Abreu in the Dominican. The Mets are in desperate need of a bat and have money coming off the books this winter, and the White Sox have some payroll flexibility after trading Jake Peavy and Alex Rios. They've also had experience in the Cuban market with Viciedo and shortstop Alexei Ramirez.
Pittsburgh's first-base situation is iffy, so the Pirates could be a dark horse if the bidding doesn't spiral out of control. And it's hard to rule out the Miami Marlins, who could use the good will that an Abreu signing would generate after last winter's payroll purge. If the Marlins pursue Abreu, they might have to consider trade offers for Logan Morrison to create room at first base.
What's the price tag?
Puig signed for six years and $42 million on top of Cespedes' four-year, $36 million contract. There's speculation that Abreu might land a deal of $60 million or higher. But the people we talked to were skeptical that his skill set warrants an investment of that magnitude.
One scout suggested four years and $32 million as a reasonable expectation for Abreu, but wouldn't be surprised if he gets $10 million a year.
"I like him fine, but I wouldn't sell the ranch to get him," the scout said. "The problem is, Cespedes and Puig can go 0-for-4 and they can still win you a game because they can run and throw. Abreu isn't that guy. He's more an Edgar Martinez-type. He has to hit or you've got nothing. He's all bat."
Abreu could benefit from the dearth of power bats available. The main first-base options on the free-agent market this winter will be Paul Konerko, James Loney, Morales, Justin Morneau, Mike Morse, Lyle Overbay, Mark Reynolds and Kevin Youkilis. If a team wants a corner infielder with a higher ceiling, it will either have to sign Abreu or make a trade.
One scout who is admittedly lukewarm on Abreu thinks he could develop into an MVP-type player if he becomes more diligent with his work habits and conditioning.
"If he is simply what he is right now, he will probably develop into a middle-of-the-road first baseman with '80' raw power, who guesses and kills mistakes and inferior pitching but struggles against top-quality guys," the scout said. "That's not a bad floor, actually, and that's the reason why he'll get paid anyway. But he may disappoint the expectations of 'best hitter on the planet' that some have already placed on him."
Talent is in the eye of the beholder, and teams will be scrambling to get on board if Abreu impresses in his tryouts. If history shows anything, the scarcer the commodity and the more teams involved, the crazier the bidding will be. It's supply and demand, stupid.
"There are 30 teams out there, and there will be people bidding for him, and it comes down to what the market will bear," said a scout. "I've been shocked before. No matter what you think is going to happen, it's usually going to be higher."