Cuba is the new Japan
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Most teams wait until the winter meetings to make their big free agent splash.

But then again, the Chicago White Sox aren't like most teams.

Instead of waiting until December to do their Christmas shopping, the Sox outbid a slew of teams including the Red Sox, Astros and Rangers for Cuban first base prodigy Jose Abreu.

The scouting report on Abreu is breathtaking. At 6-foot-2 and almost 260 pounds, he's a mammoth of a human being with power similar to his fellow countryman Yoenis Cespedes. The only difference is that unlike Cespedes, he makes contact on a consistent basis. In fact, he finished the 2010-11 season in Cuba with a preposterous .453 batting average in 66 games. At age 26, he's just now entering his prime.

Abreu's assimilation to the major leagues won't be easy but if there was ever a team he could fit right in with, it would be the White Sox. With Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo already on the roster, the Sox may have the most Cuban- friendly atmosphere in the major leagues. Even before Ramirez and Vicideo were fixtures in Chicago, Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez had already experienced success during their tenures with the White Sox.

Abreu's new deal, six years for $68 million, is the richest ever for an international player. But more than that, it's an indicator of where baseball might be heading.

A decade ago, the overseas market for ballplayers seemed to be trending toward Asia. Japanese outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui enjoyed instant success with their respective clubs while Taiwan's Chien-Ming Wang and Japan's Daisuke Matsuzaka paved the way for pitchers crossing the Pacific Ocean to play in the United States.

Japan's impact on the game is still widely felt. Yu Darvish was an All-Star this season and Boston's Koji Uehara has emerged as one of baseball's best closers. But all the while, Cuban players have been dominating like never before.

Puig-mania consumed Los Angeles this summer and Cespedes stole the show with his memorable display at the Home Run Derby. Both are regarded as two of the most exciting players in the major leagues.

The AL Central champion Detroit Tigers feature two Cuban imports including 23- year-old infielder Jose Iglesias. Though lacking consistency at the plate, Iglesias has quickly made a name for himself as one of the game's flashiest defenders. His glove work has already saved several runs during this League Championship Series.

Leonys Martin hasn't received as much attention as Yasiel Puig or Cespedes but the game-changing speed he demonstrated this year with Texas (36 steals) can't be overlooked. Neither can the contributions of righthander Jose Fernandez (12-6, 2.19 ERA, .182 AVG against), the likely National League Rookie of the Year.

When it comes to pitching, few have been better than the gazelle-like Aroldis Chapman (third in the NL in saves), a 25-year-old flamethrower for the Reds who routinely reaches triple-digits on his fastball.

Everywhere you look, it seems, there is a talented Cuban player ready to break out. The Phillies invested in star righthander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez over the summer while Baltimore gave outfielder Henry Urrutia his first taste of the majors late in the regular season. Adeiny Hechavarria didn't have a great statistical year for the Marlins (.227, 3 HR, 42 RBI, 11 SB in 148 games) but it seems like he's heading in the right direction.

Given how difficult it is to pry them away from Cuba (some have risked their lives attempting to cross over to American soil), the price for each player is never cheap. The Dodgers paid $42 million for the rights to Puig, which is $6 million more than Oakland spent on Cespedes a year earlier. Though this year's free agent class isn't as deep as we've seen in years past, Cuban DH Kendrys Morales (.277, 23 HR, 80 RBI for Seattle in 2013) will be one of the most sought-out players on the market this winter.

Baseball has always been a big part of Cuba's landscape. Since 1992, three of the five gold medals in baseball at the Olympics have gone to Cuba with silver medal wins for the Cubans in 2000 and 2008. Cuba also made it to the championship before losing to Japan at the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006.

But Cuba hadn't been a dominant prescence in the major leagues until just recently. Aroldis Chapman's selection in 2012 ended a six-year drought for Cuban players at the All-Star Game.

The increase of Latin American ballplayers in general, whether it be from Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, has no doubt helped Cuban players assimilate better than in the past. Spanish is spoken almost as much as English in big league clubhouses, so the language barrier is no longer an issue.

Still, as we've seen with Puig and probably will with Abreu as well, growing pains are to be expected. Puig's all-out style of play, a staple of the Cuban game, hasn't always translated to the big leagues. Many of his base-running gaffes ended up costing the Dodgers as did his erratic decision-making in right field.

Abreu will have big shoes to fill in Chicago as he's slated to replace a fan favorite in five-time All-Star Paul Konerko. The steep price Chicago paid for him only adds to the pressure.

But if the performances of Cespedes, Fernandez and Puig are of any indication, Chicago's $68-million splash could end up being the best move of the offseason.

Not bad, considering the offseason hasn't even started yet.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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