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Your Morning Phil: Abreu, Rios, Baker

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

11:01 AM CDT, August 12, 2013

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Talking baseball while hoping Jay Cutler’s first pass was an outlier, not foreshadowing:

1. Jose Dariel Abreu is out of Cuba, and perhaps on his way to Chicago. He is an ideal fit for the White Sox’s attempt to re-tool and attempt to build a contender behind Chris Sale, Addison Reed and the rest of the post-Jake Peavy pitching staff.

Abreu is a right-handing hitting first baseman who has put up epic power-hitting numbers on Fidel Castro’s little island. He seems an ideal fit for a team that has just freed up a lot of payroll space and is likely to lose the 37-year-old Paul Konerko to retirement after the season.

Few organizations have been as welcoming to Cubans through the years as the White Sox, with the legacy running from Minnie Minoso to Jose Contreras, Orlando Hernandez, Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo.

Like the Cubs, the White Sox unsuccessfully attempted to land Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig. They may actually have finished as the runnerup for Puig although like everyone else was blown away by the Dodgers’ $42 million offer.

Abreu is much more like Cespedes than Puig or outfielder Jorge Soler, who the Cubs signed for $30 million. He’s a known commodity who has a long track record in Cuba’s Serie Nacional and has been scouted extensively, most recently in the World Baseball Classic.

Cuba’s entry disappointed in the event in March, failing for the first time to advance to the semi-final stage when it lost twice in the second round to the Netherlands. Abreu, 26, was listed at 6-2, 258 pounds on the WBC roster.

He put together a slash line of .365/.385/.760 in Cuba’s six games (although he was 0-for-2 against the White Sox’s Andre Rienzo, pitching for Brazil). Abreu had three home runs, one double and nine RBIs in 25 at-bats. He didn’t walk, expanding his strike zone against pitchers working around him, and struck out five times.

In a three-season period from 2009-12, when he was in his ages 23-25 years, Abreu hit .412 with 98 home runs in 780 at-bats for Cienfuegos. Offensive totals throughout that period were high, but still …

Analyst Clay Davenport has created a system that translates stats from Cuba’s to the big leagues. He projected that Cespedes’ numbers in Cuba would translate to a slash line of .258/.319/.471 in the major leagues. Through 225 games with Oakland, Cespedes’ numbers are .264/.329/.472 – within 10 points in all three categories of the projection.

How productive could Abreu be in the major leagues? Davenport says that Abreu’s best season, when he hit .453 in 2010-11, projects to .358/.468/.754 – somewhere between Miguel Cabrera in his Triple Crown season and Barry Bonds in 2001, when he hit 73 home runs.

Scouts watching him against international competition see him kill mistake pitches but wonder if he has the bat speed to stand up to major-league velocity and breaking pitches night after night. They point out that he has bad habits, including a double toe tap as a timing mechanism, and believe he'd have trouble on inside fastballs. He's more strong than athletic -- unlike Cespedes and Puig -- and could be a guy who hits homers but has a low batting average.
 
Abreu is expected to get a record deal for a Cuban player. That means more than the six-year, $48-million agreement the Phillies have with pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez (which hasn’t been finalized and could be in danger of falling apart).

Bidding for him would be limited to American League teams and those in the National League that aren’t set at first base. This would seem to eliminate the Cubs, who are building around Anthony Rizzo.

While reports indicate that Abreu is out of Cuba, in either the Dominican Republic or Haiti, it probably will be many months before he has established residence and cleared U.S. government screening. The best time to show himself would be in December, when teams have their full free-agent budget to spend, but he might not be cleared to sign by then.

2. While the Braves, Dodgers, Royals and Tigers have drawn attention with white-hot stretches in recent weeks, the Rangers quietly have won 12 of 13 to go from six games behind Oakland to one game ahead in the AL West. Their trades with Chicago teams have played a role. They are 3-1 in starts by Matt Garza and got a boost over the weekend from Alex Rios. Acquired on Friday, Rios has key hits in victories on Saturday and Sunday and also collected an outfield assist Sunday. Rios was hot at the time of the trade, going 9-for-25 in his last six games with the White Sox, and has stayed hot. He’s 4-for-7 with a double and a triple in his two games with Texas. Midseason trades are generally poor gambles for the teams adding parts but these two look like they could pay dividends.

3. Dusty Baker’s Reds come to Wrigley Field on Monday night five games behind Pittsburgh in the NL Central but a comfortable 5 ½ games ahead of Arizona for the second wild-card spot. That situation isn’t nearly as solid as it would have been two years ago, however. Teams badly want to avoid that one-and-done wild-card game after seeing a 94-win Braves team and a 93-win Rangers team kicked to the curb last season, leaving a feeling like they had missed the playoffs entirely. This Reds might be right there with the Pirates if they had gotten more than nine starts from sidelined ace Johnny Cueto. They’re being extremely careful with Cueto as he recovers from a strained lat, wanting him healthy for October. They have a deep rotation that could go a long way in October. Baker needs things to click after a 97-win team was upset by the Giants in the first round last year, unraveling after Cueto left a Game 1 start after only eight pitches. His teams have won only two of their last 11 playoff games since the 2003 Cubs took a 3-1 lead on the Marlins in the 2003 NLCS. It would sure help their chances this year if they could run down the Pirates for the Central title.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers