NFBC: Tracking the new Cuban impact bat

Last week we talked about Masahiro Tanaka’s rise in NFBC drafts despite the fact that he was unsigned and has yet to pitch in the big leagues. Another player in the same situation is Jose Abreu, the 26-year-old Cuban first baseman who signed a six-year, $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox in October. Abreu is the latest in a long line of Cuban imports who could make a strong and immediate impact, following in the steps of Yasiel Puig.

Unlike Puig, however, he won’t need to start in the minor-leagues before getting his shot. Abreu, 26, is ready to step in as the starting first baseman for the White Sox, with Paul Konerko signed as an insurance policy and tutor.

At 6’3” and 255 pounds, Abreu has the potential to be that middle of the lineup slugger the White Sox need from the right side. Last year in the Cuban professional league, he hit .316 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs over 83 games, while posting a .479 on-base percentage and a .604 slugging percentage. Including post-season appearances, he has hit .392 over the past four seasons with 133 home runs, 337 RBIs, 311 runs and 278 walks. In 2011 when he was the MVP of the league, Abreu hit .453 with 33 homers, 93 RBIs, a .587 OBP and a .986 slugging percentage. Those are crazy numbers in any league.

Fantasy owners have to see this power and take notice because finding HR and RBI on Draft Day gets harder and harder with each passing season. You can’t let him slip by just because you haven’t seen him perform yet. The talent stands out, and few teams are better at scouting Cuban players than the White Sox. They have a long history of success with these players, ranging from Minnie Minoso decades ago to current players like Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez. Not only that, but having Viciedo and Ramirez on the roster will make Abreu’s transition to a new league and a new country that much easier.

NFBC owners are definitely on to Abreu and through our first 20 drafts his Average Draft Position was 119. But in our last five drafts, he’s gone sooner and sooner: numbers 110, 101, 93, 86 and 84 recently. Once owners see him hit bombs in spring training, I trust he will be a regular Top 80 pick.

As for his countryman Puig, his value seems to be on the rise. After getting picked up for his second speeding violation in December, some owners were laying off him, thinking that maybe this was a sign of immaturity and that the Dodgers might punish him with a stint in the minors. Instead, the Dodgers convinced him to quit driving and to concentrate on baseball. Puig’s ADP in our first 20 drafts was 22, but in our five most recent drafts, he’s gone 20, 13, 27, 18 and 15. There are certainly differing views on Puig’s potential in 2014, but it’s obvious that at least one owner in your league won’t be afraid to jump on him early. Be prepared for that.

Like Puig, there are other players who just have too much risk for some owners. At the top of that list is Josh Hamilton, who went from an MVP candidate in 2012 to a total bust during his first season with the Angels. He was a Top 20 pick in 2013, but his ADP in the NFBC right now is 78. Get ready for him to be there for you in the fifth and sixth rounds as he’s gone number 70, 76, 79, 91 and 103 in five recent NFBC drafts. Some people see value in Hamilton; others see no hope of a turnaround.

But there’s more than one Hamilton making waves in NFBC drafts. Billy Hamilton is the biggest Wild Card so far. Nobody in baseball has the speed potential that Hamilton has and he could single-handedly carry any fantasy team to the top of their league in stolen bases if he can hit for high average. But that’s not a given for Hamilton, who spent almost all of 2013 at Triple-A Louisville, hitting .256 with a .308 on-base percentage. After setting a minor-league record in 2012 with 155 stolen bases, he stole 75 bases in 123 games at Louisville and another 13 bases in 13 games with the Reds. He has the inside track to start in centerfield for Cincinnati and lead off, but there’s no guarantee that he can handle the job. Still, speed kills and Billy Hamilton has the greatest potential to impact your fantasy team in 2014. NFBC owners see that potential and are starting to jump on him sooner and sooner. His ADP through our first 20 drafts was 77, but recently he’s gone number 83, 78, 74, 72 and 67. I could see him being a Top 70 pick by March, and while some folks won’t touch this risky player, other owners will be more than happy to take the risk.

The Atlanta Braves took a risk last year when they signed B.J. Upton to a five-year, $72.5 million deal, one they probably regret right now. But with four years left on that contract, can they really just give up on this 29-year-old? No. So he gets another chance to perform this year, despite hitting only .184 last year with 12 stolen bases and 30 runs. Someone in your league HAS to take a chance on Upton and expect that to happen around pick 220. I’ve actually seen him go in the Top 170 recently, but using a 12th or 13th round pick on any player who hit below the Mendoza Line is very risky. You don’t strike out 151 times in 391 at-bats without some serious flaws in your game and right now B.J. just can’t correct them.

There are going to be a lot of tough decisions to be made in this year’s drafts as we have players we’ve never seen before and players who have burned us before. Nothing comes easily these days. But don’t shy away from the new international players because scouting these days is so good that MLB teams know what they’re getting even before you see them. Take Tanaka in the Top 90 with confidence. Draft Abreu in the Top 80 with confidence. And when it comes to the high-risk players, only you can decide if there’s enough reward there to jump on in again. Good luck with all of your decisions in 2014.

 

(Greg Ambrosius is the founder of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship, the industry’s premiere season-long fantasy baseball contest. Check out the NFBC at 


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