Ted Leavengood: Can Nats compete without more international signings?

As an organization, the Washington Nationals have largely eschewed big international signings. Last week, they paid $900,000 for Anderson Franco and the front office has said it will be more aggressive in international markets moving forward. Prior forays have been disappointing at best. They got nothing except legal fees for the $1.4 million they paid to Dominican phenom Smiley Gonzalez in 2006. They tried again in 2009 when they landed Cuban emigre, Yunesky Maya, who commanded a four-year, $8 million contract. Maya proved of little value and has earned only small cups of coffee at the big league level.

The Nationals are handicapping the organization by sitting on the sidelines when big talents like Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Miguel Sano are available. The big news recently was the defection of another Cuban star, Jose Dariel Abreu, who profiles with much the same upside as Puig and Cespedes. Will Washington go all in this time or wait for Scott Boras to drop the bat they need in their lap?

From Washington’s perspective, the big difference is that Abreu is a prototypical slugging first baseman. Given the subpar performance of Adam LaRoche this season and the gaping hole he has left in the middle of the batting order, Abreu could be an attractive option if the Nationals braintrust can be convinced that the Cuban is a suitable option. He could be the right-handed, middle of the order hitter they lack.

Abreu will be expensive. He benefits on two levels from the current situation in Major League Baseball. The first is the relative paucity of power hitters in the upcoming free agent class. Other than Robinson Cano, there is no star power hitter available. Additionally, Baseball America states that there is scarcity of power-hitting first baseman in the minor leagues as well. Abreu would be the best in that market and could potentially be the best free agent first baseman of any kind. At the major league level, there is Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales, but they do not represent any significant upgrade over a 35-year-old LaRoche. For the Nationals, Abreu could be the best power first baseman not only on the market in 2014, but in the foreseeable future.

The second benefit Abreu has is how well Cespedes and Puig have done in the majors. Cuban stars like Dayan Viciedo and Kendrys Morales have had success previously, but Puig and Cespedes have added further legitimacy to claims that Cuban stars can make a quick and valuable contribution when signed. And for the money, they have provided relatively good value. Cespedes signed for four years at $36 million and Puig is a potential All-Star at the ridiculously low figure of $42 million for seven years. Given the value these players could have, their contracts are Filene’s Basement bargains.

Abreu has the ability to become the top power hitter to emerge from Cuba in the last decade. He has more power potential than Cespedes, who has 43 home runs in his first two seasons with the Oakland Athletics. Abreu hit .453/.597/.986 during the Cuban baseball season last year with 33 home runs and 93 RBIs only 212 at-bats. The Serie Nacional league in Cuba is the equivalent of high Single-A ball in the states, but when Baseball Prospectus’ Clay Davenport ran comparisons two years ago, he found Abreu’s numbers comparable to Miguel Cabrera. Is it a certainty that Abreu can reach that level if signed? No, but there is a chance and that is why teams will bid high to find out just how good he can be.

The biggest problem Abreu faces is his lack of overall athleticism like a Cespedes or Puig. Cespedes can play any outfield position, including center, and Puig similarly is a fine overall athlete who has the arm for right field and the power bat for the corner position. Abreu profiles much differently. He is bigger and will have one place on the diamond: first base.

In a recent podcast, Baseball America’s Ben Badler and John Manuel both agreed that the Nationals could be players for Abreu. Washington has as much need for a first base slugger as anyone and one of their big problems this year has been the lack of a right-handed power hitter. Jayson Werth is hitting cleanup now, but the problem has been the plunging power numbers of Ryan Zimmerman. There has been talk of moving him to first base in 2014, but there is more question about Zimmerman’s bat than there is about his throwing arm. Leaving him at third base and Anthony Rendon at second works better if there is legitimate 30-plus home run power at first and Abreu has the potential.

The upside is a huge one for Washington. Putting a plus-plus right-handed bat into a lineup that includes Bryce Harper could turn a pedestrian offense into a league-best. Taking the pressure off young hitters like Harper would help, as would removing the pressure from Zimmerman to carry the rest of the weight.

The Nationals have been twice burnt, but the third time could be the charm. Jose Dariel Abreu could be a name that rings church bells in Washington, or he could be just another smiley cover story about what could have been. One thing is for certain, the wallflowers go home alone and Washington needs to make the first move.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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