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Can Cuban Slugger Jose Abreu Turn Around The White Sox?

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FUKUOKA, JAPAN - MARCH 04: Infielder Jose Abreu #79 of Cuba hits a grand slam homer in the bottom half of the fifth inning during the World Baseball Classic First Round Group A game between Cuba and China at Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome on March 4, 2013 in Fukuoka, Japan.

Jose Abreu (Photo Credit: Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

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By Rich Arleo

CBS Local Sports, in our “30 Players 30 Days” spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.

Jose Abreu, First Baseman, Chicago White Sox

2012-2013 season (Cuba): 42 G, 136 AB, .322 BA, 13 HR, 36 RBI, 0 SB, 1.262 OPS

When analyzing most players entering their first season in the major leagues, there’s usually a large base of minor league numbers and a ton of scouting and analysis to draw from. That’s not the case with Jose Abreu, the hard-hitting first baseman who defected from Cuba last August.

For the past few years, Abreu has been an accomplished slugger for Cienfuegos, which plays in the Cuban National Series. But projecting major league production based on numbers from this (or any) Cuban league can prove difficult. First, the Cuban season is short; Abreu played just 42 games in the 2012-2013 season and only 80 or so in previous seasons. Gauging the competition level, given the limited video and scouting, is even harder.

The White Sox, however, decided they were confident enough to give Abreu a six-year, $68 million deal — a record for Cuban defectors — to be their new starting first baseman. To be fair, there’s a lot to like.

Abreu had been the premier slugger in Cuba since the 2010-2011 season, when he set a home run record and was named league MVP. He had a slash line that year of .453/.597/.986 with 79 runs, 93 RBIs and 33 home runs in just 66 games. Those stats would’ve been even more impressive had he not missed 23 games with bursitis in his shoulder.

Some major leaguers got their first look at the slugger in the 2011 Baseball World Cup, where he hit .442/.478/.721 with three home runs and 10 runs in 11 games. A couple years later, he appeared in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, which was the first extensive look for U.S. television viewers. There, he went 9-for-12 with three home runs, six runs and nine RBIs in six games.

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While all those numbers impress, it’s still unclear how his swing will hold up to MLB pitching. Some scouts have criticized his bat speed, but it’s not a universal concern. The recent success of many Cuban defectors in the majors is a positive indication of the type of talent Abreu faced in Cuba. Yasiel Puig is the first big name that comes to mind, but he’s not the only one. Yoenis Cespedes went straight from Cuba to the Oakland Athletics in 2012 and had no issues, compiling 23 home runs, 82 RBI and a slash-line of .292/.356/.505. Others to make an impact in the majors these last few years include Kendrys Morales, Jose Iglesias, Leonys Martin and Aroldis Chapman. With more and more Cuban talent making the jump, transition is becoming less of a concern.

The White Sox have moved the beloved Paul Konerko into a reserve role in his final season to make room for Abreu, which shows the confidence the team has in him out of the gate. Abreu, for his part, seems to be taking his development in spring training very seriously as well.

The slugger is listed on the White Sox’ official website at 6-foot-3, 255-pounds, and will be an imposing presence along with the 6-foot-6 Adam Dunn in the middle of the order. He slugged his first home run of the spring on March 6 and had a two-run double for his first two RBIs the previous game. Coming off a 99-loss season, the White Sox don’t have the luxury easing Abreu into the majors. The pressure will be on right away.

Can the big man handle the majors like his fellow Cuban defectors have in recent years? The signs are good, but we’ll see.

Next up: Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals

Check out our Fantasy Baseball Preview, breaking down the top players at each position.

Rich Arleo is a Marist College alum who has been a professional writer and editor since graduating in 2010. Find him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ for more of his sports musings.

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