The Yankees have really shied away from big-time international free agents in recent years, and almost certainly have regretted it. They have seen the likes of Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, Yu Darvish, Aroldis Chapman, and more sign with other clubs and have immediate success.
The Yankees have not made a big move on the international free agent market since the great Kei Igawa. It’s time they take a risk and make a marquee signing. Obviously they should wait for the right player, and they shouldn’t overspend. The questions then become whether or not Jose Dariel Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka are those players, and whether or not they will have to overspend to get them.
Let’s delve into Abreu first. At 6-foot-3, 250-pounds, Abreu has been called anything from “the best Cuban hitter including Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig” to “he’ll be lucky if he reaches his ceiling, which is Kendrys Morales.” He is a right handed hitter who has significant power, and uses all fields. He has a double toe-tap and has average bat speed. He has a knack for barreling the ball. The biggest knock on him is that he won’t be able to hit the inside fastball. Scouts say he struggles with the 90-92 mph fastball inside. Others laud his ability to make adjustments, so it’s possible he could improve upon that if needed. Remember, they have always said the same thing about Jeter.
His defense is considered a liability. He is slow on the base paths, and while he can play a decent first base, he is not quick and may struggle defensively in the majors. Yoenis Cespedes was quoted saying “If he had just a tad more speed, he would be a complete player” in reference to Abreu.
This past season, Abreu hit .344/.479/.604/1.083 in the Cuban league “serie nacional” with 17 doubles and 19 homeruns in 83 games. This was actually his worst season in three years. In 2011/2012 He hit .394/.543/.835/1.378 with 37 home runs, 103 RBI, a 43/80 K/BB ratio in 92 games. He lead he league in batting average, OBP, slugging, and OPS.
It’s important to realize that these stats came in an inferior league to the MLB, and there is no way this type of success would translate to similar success here. If you extrapolate his homerun total from 2011, he would hit 63 homeruns over a 160 game schedule. Something tells me that’s not going to happen. That said, the worst comparison I’ve heard about Abreu is that he is similar to Kendrys Morales. At the right price, a Kendrys Morales type would be great for the Yankees, as they showed this year they could use the offense.
Changing gears, Masahiro Tanaka is the prized pitcher on the international free agent market. He is 6-foot-2, and 205-pounds. He will be 24 to start next season. Scouts project him as a number two starter who should step immediately into a rotation. He throws a low-90’s fastball which can reach the mid-90’s. His fastball is straight, however, which means it could be very hittable in the major leagues. To keep hitters honest he also throws a splitter, which might be able to keep batters off his straight four-seamer. His splitter is nasty with late action. He also has a slider, which is his favorite secondary pitch, and is deadly. He can throw a curve ball, but there’s not much information out there on that pitch.
Statistically, Tanaka is the best pitcher in Japan. He threw 181 innings last year and struck out 155. He had just 27 walks and his WHIP was just 0.934. He has thrown more than 150 innings every year since the age of 18, so durability is not an issue, although arm mileage is. Last but not least, he is the owner of a 25 games winning streak. Wins are a terrible stat to evaluate performance, but it’s still impressive. The level of dominance one must show to reach 25 straight wins is astounding, and his 1.24 ERA during that time shows he earned it, and this wasn’t just a statistical, lucky fluke.
Bringing this all back into focus, the Yankees have a lot of holes to fill this offseason. Whether or not they need to pursue these two players depends on who else they bring in from free agency and any trades Cashman might have up his sleeve. Both are solid options. For the Yankees in particular, Abreu would seem to be less useful than Tanaka. Abreu plays first base, something the Yankees already have in Teixeira. He’s also not particularly good at first base, so Teixeira will play the majority of the innings there even if Abreu were signed. His value is going to be higher to a team who needs a first baseman, and thus they will probably be willing to pay more for him than the Yankees. In order to get him, the Yankees will have to overpay, which is not something I would recommend doing.
Tanaka, on the other hand, does fill a glaring need for the Yankees. As it stands today, Ivan Nova is the number two pitcher for he 2014 season, and the number 3-5 spots are up for grabs. The Yankees straight up need pitching. They unquestionably need a reliable second starter. It sounds like Tanaka will be able to step in and be that guy immediately. In a thin pitching market, there’s really no reason for the Yankees not to pursue this guy. His posting fee also will not count against the luxury task (if the changes in the new posting system don’t turn all of this upside down), which may allow the Yankees hover below the $189 million threshold. The downside is that we have no idea how his skills will translate to the MLB, as is the case with any international free agent. It’s going to end up being a lot of money for an unproven commodity.
At some point the Yankees must get back into the premium international free agent game. It is getting harder and harder to acquire young talent, and there are less and less players making it to free agency. They cannot acquire talent as easily as other teams in the draft because they are always drafting near the end of the pack. They are now handicapped in acquiring international talent with the spending restrictions on young IFA’s which are worse for the better teams in the league. The only thing that’s left is older IFA’s in their mid 20’s. This is the only place where the Yankees can flex their financial muscle effectively as long as their scouting is good. It’s time they take some action.