International Free Agents: Jose Dariel Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka

Not so long ago, the $189 million budget was impractical, hasty, and dangerous, but through a certain someone’s suspension, the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold is far more reasonable. Assuming the Yankees were to re-sign Robinson Cano, the team was looking at somewhere under $30 million to replace or re-sign Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Curtis Granderson, Phil Hughes, Mariano Rivera, Travis Hafner, and Kevin Youkilis. But with the recent 211 game suspension to Alex Rodriguez, there looks to be a good chance that the third baseman could see close to a full year suspension in 2014. This means that the Yankees will be off the hook for his $27.5 million, which will double their allowance for the 2013-2014 offseason.

It’s been some time since the Yankees have flexed their monetary muscles. Yes, the 2013 payroll is approaching $230 million, but when’s the last time the organization outbid someone for a big time free agent? Rafael Soriano? If Soriano doesn’t count, you’d have to go back to 2008-2009, when the Yankees went on their spending spree to obtain A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira, and CC Sabathia. Then there’s the new CBA, which has prevented the organization from giving drafted players large over slot bonuses, as well as mega bonuses to the majority of players in international free agency. Bud Selig has severely diminished the Yankees’ ability to spend on young talent, and the luxury tax and revenue sharing now includes so many penalties that the team is fighting to get to their lowest payroll in a decade.

Mike Axisa at River Ave Blues crunched the budget numbers for 2014, updated with Alex Rodriguez’ probable suspension, and notes that the team will have right around $56.1 million for ten roster spots. These positions of need include catcher, third baseman, a utility player, and pitching. The rotation will undoubtedly include Sabathia, Ivan Nova, and Michael Pineda, but the last two spots are open to David Phelps, Vidal Nuno, and Adam Warren. I suppose that there’s a chance Manny Banuelos could win a spot out of Spring Training, but it’s extremely unlikely considering his recent Tommy John surgery. The bullpen could also use a few arms, though the team has shown no problem growing their own bullpen prospects or finding undervalued players on the trade market or waiver wire.

$56.1 million is a ton of money to play with, but if the Yankees plan to stay economical for the future, they won’t throw the money around like 2008-2009. I suspect that the Yankees will try to use some of this money on short one year deals for players like Kuroda, but the team will also look to invest in the future. The free agent market will be headlined by Cano, as well as Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Matt Garza, and Shin-Soo Choo. Any of these players would be a good fit for the Yankees’ lineup, but they will probably cost the team a large chunk of that $56.1 million, and require long term deals into their age 30 seasons. This might be a problem for a team that’s shown far too much age in 2013.

Unfortunately, the Yankees farm system is deep but with few major league ready players. Slade Heathcott or Tyler Austin could shock the team in Spring Training with a big month of offense, but the chances aren’t great that they’d be rushed to the Bronx. The Yankees clearly need home runs, they need pitching, and they need youth. There is one solution for this, one market where the CBA failed to neuter big market teams. The older international free agent market.

The recent influx of players from Cuba has shown that teams can find high level and relatively young talent if they’re willing to spend big. Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jorge Soler have each earned big contracts in their voyage to the MLB. Likewise, a small amount of players from Japan, specifically Yu Darvish, have proven that young talent can still be bought.

The 2013-2014 offseason will include two big international free agents, one that’s been dubbed the best hitter in the world, and another that’s breaking pitching records in Japan.

Jose Dariel Abreu has been a popular name out of the Cuba for some time. The 26 year old has demolished Cuban baseball since 2003, and over the last few years he’s put up slashes of .399/.555/.822 (2009-2010), .453/.597/.986 (2010-2011), .394/.542/.837 (2011-2012), and .382/.535/.735 (2012-2013). Through the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Abreu’s popularity has carried over to the States where he ranked among the best prospects in the tournament.

Abreu’s power and plate discipline is undeniable, and most scouts believe he’s capable of a 30+ home run season in the MLB. As a young right-handed bat with power to all fields, it’s easy to see how Abreu would fit into Yankee Stadium and the projected lineup, but there are some clear concerns.

For all of his hitting ability, Abreu lacks athleticism. He is billed by scouts as a first baseman or designated hitter, and no one believes he’s capable of handling a move to third base or a corner outfield spot. The Yankees, who have Teixeira under contract until 2016, have more important priorities than another first baseman. Perhaps they would consider Abreu at DH, however the aging lineup that includes Derek Jeter, Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano and Ichiro Suzuki may require some players to take significant time off from their defensive positions.

There is also a few worries about Abreu’s bat, as there are with most big international free agents. Scouts believe that the right-hander lacks bat speed, and produces much of his power on his physical strength, a concern which could prevent the slugger from catching up to some MLB fastballs. While Abreu showed that he had no trouble seeing most breaking pitches in this year’s WBC, there is always worry that Cuban players will chase sliders when the level of competition increases in the MLB. Finally, some question Abreu’s batting mechanics, criticizing his double toe tap as a poor timing mechanism. You can see that for yourself in this video below.

With all this said, Abreu may be the best hitting international free agent ever. It’s hard to tell how his numbers will translate to the MLB, but he’ll be a hot commodity this offseason. The Yankees need youth and power, they have the money to burn, but will struggle to find a position for him to play.

Then there’s Masahiro Tanaka, a right-handed starting pitcher from Japan that will probably be posted this offseason. Tanaka will draw most of his comparisons to Darvish due to their level of dominance and recent star status, but the right-handed pitcher better resembles the Yankees’ own Hiroki Kuroda. Both pitchers own similar body types, nearly identical repertoires, and velocities in the same range. Tanaka throws both a four-seam and two-seam fastball in the low to mid 90′s, along with a vicious mid 80′s slider and splitter.

The starter owns a 2.34 career ERA in Japan, but over the last three years, Tanaka is pitching to a 1.44 ERA, an 8.68 K/9, a 1.10 BB/9, and a 7.34 H/9. Comparatively, in the three seasons before Darvish was posted, the right-hander put up a 1.64 ERA, a 9.72 K/9, a 1.87 BB/9, and a 6.31 H/9.

Though Tanaka does not sport the same high velocity and deep repertoire as Darvish, the results look astonishingly similar. For teams that appreciate how well Darvish’s success has translated to the MLB, Tanaka could be a desirable name. The Yankees obviously have a need for a starting pitcher with Kuroda, Hughes, and Pettitte reaching free agency, but there are also questions surrounding Tanaka’s status as a pitcher. Shoulder injuries have lead some scouts to believe that the Japanese right-hander will ultimately be a bullpen arm, in which case the price may be too high for some teams. Regardless, the Yankees have already shown interest in the pitcher.