Jose Abreu’s contract: there’s risk there


$68 million is still such a unrelatably bananas amount of money that most had no problem transitioning to the idea that the Sox had gone out on a limb to secure the services of Jose Dariel Abreu. That the reported six-year deal carries the title of the largest international signing ever–as dependent on inflation, increased demand for Cuban players and other market factors as that may be–only heightens any early speculation that the White Sox were exceptionally aggressive.

I’ve resorted to using this picture. // Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

There are two immediate mitigating factors to tone down panic. First, the White Sox did not arrive at this figure alone, it was the product of somewhat intense bidding that they had to win to secure a player with no real ties to any major league franchise or US city. Gist: Other teams were interested too! They’re not crazy!

Second, averaging out the totality of the contract over the years (this is unlikely to be how it’s distributed but it’s all we have at the moment) gives Abreu ~$11.3 million per season. This would swiftly make him the third-highest paid member of the White Sox, but in terms of free agency deals, it’s pretty mild.

We don’t specifically cite WAR a whole lot in these parts. As Dave Cameron, obviously one of its largest proponents, stated, WAR is more “blunt hammer than precise chisel,” and we typically feel it’s more useful to talk out the elements of what makes players valuable than quote WAR and defend the precision that a figure that runs down to the tenth of a point implies. The inconsistent results of various defensive metrics only adds to the anxiety.

But since we’re speaking in the most general terms, it’s helpful to note that the cost of a single win above replacement has commonly been cited as worth $5 million on the free agent market, with recent debate settling to place the cost above $6 million per season, or even as high as $7 million.Without spending anymore time quibbling about the parameters, if $11.3 million is worth 1.6-2.3 WAR, the Sox are paying Abreu to be roughly a league-average starter. Possibly slightly better, possibly slightly worse.

End of jargon.

Abreu will be not be adding value–and likely taking some away–with his defense and baserunning, so there is still plenty of pressure for him to be a solidly above-average hitter to prove his worth, but he’s not being asked to be an All-Star. It’s understandable that “league-average first basemen” might sound underwhelming for such a ballyhooed signing, but if so, consider recalibrating expectations just a touch. No one capable of producing league-average offense for a first basemen put on Sox pinstripes last season.

This is the benefit of international signings, potential stars get yeoman free agent salaries. The risk here is the years. The Yankees paid Kevin Youkilis $12 million this season for the privilege of being the first to know that 2012 was likely Youkilis’ last hurrah as a full-time starter. He was no help at all for the 2013 team and they paid him more money than Abreu’s average annual salary will be. But now he’s gone, because it was a one-year deal, and no one has to think about how to shoehorn Youkilis and the various bones protruding from his skin into the lineup, or test out to see if he can be the guy he was or was supposed to be.

The White Sox are protected against the possibility that Abreu is not the offensive god that his Cuban numbers would suggest, but very vulnerable if his projected issues with inside velocity make him unplayable. As Dunn and Keppinger have proven, multiple years of commitment allow for many opportunities to hurt the team, long after it’s been made clear that what was believed to be true upon initial signing is false.

As with any contract, but especially this one, if Abreu exceeds expectations, the Sox are golden. If any statistical translations from Cuba or Ryan Howard comparisons are close to the mark, they will have secured the centerpiece to their offense for a pedestrian sum. Relatively.

That’s a happy note to end on, and it’s fine to stay starry-eyed through the Winter, provided they are stowed away in a coldly rational fashion by Spring.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan