Yesterday, we talked a little about the prospect of the Miami Marlins pursuing Cuban free agent Jose Dariel Abreu. Abreu has been a super-elite player in the top Cuban league for the last four or five years, and he is just hitting the peak of his performance at age 26 right now. Teams interested in the slugger will certainly be bidding hard, and Abreu's agent is expecting a deal of around six years and $54 million, which would be the biggest deal offered to a Cuban free agent ever.
Just like with Yoenis Cespedes before him, one would expect the Marlins to be involved in the bidding. Unlike with the case of premier international amateur free agents, the Marlins have expressed interest in past in acquiring players almost ready for the big leagues. Famously, they were considered the easy frontrunners before 2012 to sign Cespedes before he received a larger contract from the Oakland Athletics. However, the Fish never attempted to sign the previous big-name free agent from Cuba, Aroldis Chapman, so their interest is not guaranteed.
Nevertheless, the Fish may be involved among the litany of teams excited to see Abreu's name pop up for free agency heading into 2014. The only problem is that Abreu is an all-offense slugger who is too big and lumbering to play effective defense, even at first base. All accounts point to him being a liability at the position and better off as a designated hitter.
This clashes with the Marlins on two levels:
1) The Marlins do not have the DH available to him, which means Abreu would have to play the field.
2) The Fish already have a first baseman in Logan Morrison.
The first problem may seem like an issue, but the Fish have played countless bad defenders at multiple positions in the past with no regard for that problem. The team forced Morrison into left field for almost two seasons before they realized the error of their ways. The club played Mike Jacobs from 2006 to 2008 at first base primarily. If things at the plate go well, they will live.
But that aspect is not what I want to discuss. The Marlins have an incumbent in the position in Morrison, and at first glance, that would seem to keep them out of the race. He is a serviceable, likely above-average first baseman with good on-base skills and decent power. Right now, ZiPS projects him to be a 1.6-win player over the course of a full season, with a line of .269/.349/.444 (.346 wOBA). His career batting line is essentially the same as that, and at age 25, one could possibly see marginal improvement in his game.
But in Morrison, can you see a player who is a star? Morrison's best season in the minors came at age 20 in High-A, when he hit .332/.402/.494 (.405 wOBA) and was 52 percent better than the league average. Abreu hit .318/.418/.573 at a similar age in a league with very similar competitive levels. Morrison has since moved into the majors and shown little in the way of breakout promise. Meanwhile, Abreu had a 2011 season that translated into a Major League equivalent (according to Clay Davenport's translations) to a .381/.495/.809 (!) batting line.
Since then, he has gone back down to his 2010 levels (equivalent line of .333/.457/.673) in the last season and a half, but even then, those numbers project at least the potential of a superstar hitter. Morrison's best translated season came with Triple-A New Orleans or High-A Jupiter, and neither was even close to the lines Abreu put up in his age 23 to age 26 seasons in Serie Nacional. Back then, Morrison was considered the 18th- or 20th-best prospect in baseball; imagine what ranking Abreu would boast coming off of these seasons.
Of course, there are downsides to this argument. Abreu has spent essentially nine seasons (since age 17) playing at the same competition level, and as Grantland's Jonah Keri reports, the level of competition varies wildly depending on the teams you play. It might just be that Abreu really outgrew that level rather than him reaching a new, higher plane of existence. And his defense still has the chance of sinking him if he is truly terrible and the Marlins have no place to play him. There are, as with all moves, risks involved with signing Abreu and eschewing the known commodity of Morrison.
But the Miami Marlins are not a conventional team that can afford to pay for known quantities. With Jeffrey Loria running the team, the Fish have far fewer opportunities to find themselves a superstar. If the Fish are not fortunate to draft a star like Giancarlo Stanton and retain him, the pickings are slim. Fewer and fewer stars are going into free agency as early as they once did, and the Fish are rarely the squad that sells the farm to acquire a star player from a selling team. If the Marlins see the chance of getting an elite talent at a price reflective of risk, the team should go for the high-risk option for the chance at a star player on the cheap.
The alternative of going with the safer option of Morrison, who is unlikely to develop into much more than what he is, leaves the team with a decent contributor being paid a decent amount. In the race for wins at their cheapest, opting to be risk-averse leaves your team in mediocrity.
This is by no means a guarantee that Abreu is a star. But if the alternative is a player like Morrison, maybe the Fish should pay up for the higher upside rather than settle for the comfort of average.
More from Fish Stripes:
- This Day In Marlins History: Marlins claw back to top Brewers, stay in race
- Marlins rumors: Marlins may trade from pitching depth, four starters "untouchable"
- Marlins vs. Royals: Royals mistakes give Marlins 5-2 win
- Marlins Daily Minor League Report: August 13
- This Day in Marlins History: Andre Dawson announces his retirement