By John Perrotto
Masahiro Tanaka will be undoubtedly be the biggest story of spring training should his Japanese team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, finally decide to submit him for posting and allow him to play in the major leagues in 2014.
The right-hander went 24-0 this year during the regular season for Rakuten, champions of Nippon Professional Baseball. Japanese media will descend en masse on the spring training base of whatever team Tanaka signs with as that country's fascination with native sons who come to play baseball in the United States remains as strong as when Hideo Nomo made his dazzling debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers nearly two decades ago.
However, a more intriguing story will play out at the Chicago White Sox's camp at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., to much less fanfare. Cuban expatriate first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu will be taking part in his first American spring training after signing a six-year, $68-million contract in October.
Abreu has often been called "the Barry Bonds of Cuba." And, no asteriskheads, that isn't meant as an insult.
The 26-year-old right-handed hitting Abreu showed the same traits as Bonds -- excellent power and plate discipline -- during his years playing in Serie Nacional, Cuba's major league. Some of the statistics he compiled on the island defy description, such as during the winter of 2010-11 when he hit 33 home runs in 66 games with 93 RBIs, 79 runs scored, a .453 batting average, a .597 on-base percentage and a .986 slugging percentage.
Granted, Serie Nacional isn't the same as the major leagues. However, the numbers are eye-popping in a nation long noted for producing baseball talent.
"We're excited to get a chance to see him in spring training," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "Nobody knows for sure exactly how he is going to do but our scouts think very highly of his talent. We feel like he has a chance to be a big part of our future."
Abreu is a different type of player than most who have defected from the communist country and came to the major leagues, such as outfielders Yoenis Cespedes of the Oakland Athletics and Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both have dazzled with their all-around athletic ability, Cespedes helping the Athletics win American League West titles in each of his first two seasons and winning the All-Star Home Run Derby this year at Citi Field in New York while Puig helped sparked the Dodgers to an amazing 42-8 stretch at midseason that keyed their run to the National League West championship.
The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Abreu is a pure slugger. He won't make spectacular plays in the field like Cespedes or daring baserunning attempts like Puig. However, Abreu's power is so prodigious that the White Sox were comfortable in signing him to the largest contract ever given an international player.
"The power is his loudest tool," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said, "but I think it overshadows the fact that he is a good all-around hitter. He's not just a power hitter but we feel he will hit for average and have a good on-base percentage. It wouldn't be fair to call him a one-dimensional slugger."
Even if Abreu does turn out to be a one-dimensional slugger, his power potential is almost intoxicating to White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams.
"I've seen a lot of great ones over my 32 years in professional baseball and this is the first time I wanted to stand up and give an ovation after batting practice," Williams said in recalling the first time he scouted Abreu. "He has a low-maintenance, soft, quiet load of the hands and his lower half and hands worked as well as I've seen a right-hander hitter's hands work down through the ball and the ball explodes of his bat but in a line-drive manner. When he hits tape-measure shots, it's almost as though he missed hitting a line drive but got backspin on the ball."
In a highly unscientific, yet revealing, poll of five scouts from other major-league organizations who watched Abreu play in various international competitions over the years, three felt he would have a successful major-league career and two thought the White Sox would regret the $68-million outlay.
Two of the scouts who believe Abreu will succeed likened him to Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard because of his size and ability to hit long home runs.
"It's going to be fun to see this guy hit in Chicago because the ball flies (at U.S. Cellular Field)," said a scout from an NL club. "He's going to hit some 500-foot home runs there because he's got that proverbial light-tower power. He's a smart hitter, too. He'll take his walks if they try to pitch around him. He's going to be a force."
The two scouts who feel Abreu will be a bust believe major-league pitchers will consistently beat him with inside fastballs.
"He blocks himself off on his swing and his bat is slow," a scout from an AL team said. "He's got some big-time adjustments to make if he's going to hit in the big leagues."
The White Sox feel they have a strong support system in place to help Abreu make the transition to the major leagues, both physically and mentally, as well as the cultural adjustment to the United States.
Though he has most likely ceded his starting first baseman's job to Abreu, veteran Paul Konerko has decided to return for one more season to serve as a mentor and the right-handed-hitting half of a designated hitter platoon with Adam Dunn. Abreu also figures to be one of three Cubans in the White Sox's starting lineup along with shortstop Alexei Ramirez and left fielder Dayan Viciedo. Abreu and Ramirez are close friends.
"It's difficult for any player to first come to the major leagues and it's even more difficult when you've left your family and friends behind," Hahn said. "We want to make Jose feel as comfortable as possible because we feel he is going to be a very important part of our organization for many years to come. We're excited to have him."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.