McGrath: Next big star could be waiting in Mexico

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comMay 18, 2014 

Chicago White Sox rookie Jose Abreu, left, who defected from Cuba, leads the league in home runs (15), runs batted in (42) and slugging percentage (.595). The first baseman is an early candidate for rookie of the year in the American League.


While the Seattle Mariners were busy courting free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano last winter, the Chicago White Sox outbid four other teams to acquire Cuban defector Jose Abreu.

Cano has been OK. Not a bust, by any means, but not the Hall of Fame-bound superstar we’d been led to expect. In any case, despite their $240 million investment, the Mariners don’t seem worried. There’s a consensus that Cano’s bat will heat up because it always heats up.

Abreu? The first baseman is a candidate for rookie of the year. The competition would be a runaway except for New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, an international free agent from Japan. While Tanaka already has emerged as a stopper — he’s 6-0 with a 2.17 earned-run average — Abreu begins Sunday with 15 home runs, three fewer than the Kansas City Royals have hit as a team. His 42 RBIs lead the American League, as does his .595 slugging percentage and 103 total bases.

Abreu, whose breakout spring was preceded by the remarkable 2013 season of fellow defector Yasiel Puig, is the latest Cuban to have taken his talents to the United States. He won’t be the last.

Waiting in the wings — or, more accurately, in Mexico, where he has established residence — is 23-year-old Daniel Carbonell, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound outfielder who apparently has everything in the toolbox but 30-homer power. Otherwise, he’s a high-contact switch hitter with exceptional speed, a superior glove and an arm few base runners figure to challenge.

Think the Mariners could use a guy like that? So do they.

According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, the Mariners are among those pursuing Carbonell. The Yankees also are in the hunt, and while there could be two or three more, it’s possible we’re on the brink of Bidding War II between Seattle and New York.

When it comes to international free agents, I’m usually at the mercy of stats that don’t always translate into reliable projection numbers for the big leagues. I thought the Mariners should have made a push for Tanaka, for instance, based on his 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA last season in Japan.

I’m not a scout, and math was never my best subject, but when a pitcher goes 24-0 at any level, in any country, he’s a prospect any general manager needs to consider.

Carbonell’s stats with Camaguey in the Cuban National Series are more difficult to decipher than Tanaka’s 24-0. Because the winter league season in Cuba is short by MLB standards, the best way to evaluate Carbonell would be looking at a four-year career that included 568 at-bats — about what an everyday player accumulates in a single big league season.

Carbonell hit .287, with nine homers and 70 RBIs. He wasn’t much of a force on the basepaths (only 34 stolen-base attempts), and I’m not sure what that’s about. What’s undeniable is that he’s sprint-racer fast.

Cuba being Cuba, there aren’t many Camaguey highlights circulating around the Internet. But Carbonell’s representatives put together a video of him working out in Mexico, and it’s quite a show.

See Daniel run. Run, Daniel, run! See Daniel throw. Throw, Daniel, throw! See Daniel hit. Hit, Daniel, hit! See Daniel …

You get the idea.

There’s nobody else on the field, and baseball, as with any team sport, is quite more of a challenge when there are these people in the camera frame known as “opponents.”

But Carbonell is an impressive athlete, and judging from his interaction with bystanders — he was shown signing autographs for kids and hugging their great-grandmothers — he can always consider a future as the Pope if the baseball thing doesn’t pan out.

In the meantime, baseball appears to be a viable option for Carbonell, and the Mariners appear to be viable suitors. Their history with Cuban defectors is mixed. Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt was envisioned as a middle-infield anchor for 10 years. He stuck around for five, showing occasional wizardry in the field along with the occasional mental lapse in remembering how many outs there were.

On the other hand, starting pitcher Roenis Elias, whose record fell to 3-3 on Saturday after Seattle lost a second consecutive winnable game at Minnesota, has the look of a keeper, or at least a survivor. Fast-tracked from a 2013 season spent in Double A, he’s convinced he belongs in a starting rotation of a team starving for some offense.

Which brings us back to Carbonell. He’ll be forced to make a decision before July 2, when spending restrictions on international players will be applied.

The Mariners are in a state of blah right now. Just when they win a few, they lose a few more, and for all the familiar reasons: Quiet bats producing electricity at the sound of ho-hum, ho-hum.

Daniel Carbonell can change that.

See Daniel sign. Sign, Daniel, sign!

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