Everybody loves it when the mystery team swoops in, don’t they? Now that Yoenis Cespedes, the latest Cuban mega-prospect, has signed his four-year, $36 million deal with the Oakland Athletics, there are a few questions worth asking.
1. Why go to Oakland? After all, as Gertrude Stein said in reference to Oakland, “There is no there there,” and with the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels ruling the roost, why would Cespedes freely choose to go to a second-division club? Because of the money, and here in the middle of February there isn’t a lot of unspent cash left floating around in the market. At this time of year, a lot of teams are publicly asserting they’re tapped out or already at or over budget. To the surprise of many, the A’s actually had the money to spend, but nobody expected them to jump in, especially when they’re bobbing around that bright line between being cheap and being on the union’s list of baddies when it comes to clubs potentially not spending their revenue-sharing cash on payroll.
His coming to Oakland might seem stranger still in light of his description as a five-tool center fielder, since the team's one major financial commitment this winter was to its veteran center fielder, Coco Crisp, for two years guaranteed at $13 million, with a 2014 club option for $7.5 million (with a $1 million buyout). Whatever you want to say about Crisp’s virtues, a large chunk of his value is tied up in his glove -- he won’t be an asset to a big league lineup playing regularly in a corner.
Cespedes is 26 years old, a guy smack-dab in the middle of his expected peak seasons, and he’s supposed to be good to go as a center fielder. He may have tied a single-season record for homers in Cuba, but when Dan Szymborski has projected him in a neutral park he’s topped out around 27 homers and a .445 SLG, which is nice, but the Coliseum is anything but a neutral park. Per Baseball Info Solutions’ three-year park factors, Oakland’s rating for homers gets scaled to 83 (with 100 representing average), but 91 for right-handed hitters. So take even that translation of Cespedes’ performance down a few pegs, and you have a great bat for a regular in center field, but maybe not so much in right.
2. What does this deal say about his value? This is especially interesting to think about because the numbers that initially got tossed around for what it might take to sign Cespedes ranged up to $50 million, but obviously that price point was a bit inflated. As Jim Bowden noted last week the sticker price of $30-40 million was scaring off suitors.
So if reportedly interested (and contending) teams such as the Marlins and Rangers weren’t willing to bid even $30 million to sign Cespedes over four years, what does that say about Cespedes’ value? You would anticipate that anybody given equal offers from a contender and the A’s would choose the contender, so you could view the $36 million deal from the A's as an instance of overpaying to win.
That’s worth keeping in mind in light of some of the comments about Cespedes that came out of Miami. Team president David Samson quipped, “We want him, but we don't need him. ... So he'd come to spring training and have to win a job.” This is from a team employing Chris Coghlan (who can’t really play center) and Emilio Bonifacio as its primary center-field options. You could consider this to have been a bit of negotiating bluster from Samson, but it does bring us to the third key question …
3. Is Cespedes all that? Unfortunately, that’s always going to be the question with Cuban talent. As much as you want to believe in his skills and although scouts grade his tools as special, the track record for Cuban talent often isn’t quite as exciting as the money and the hype they generate.
After all, Aroldis Chapman is two years into his five guaranteed years with the Reds and has not yet blossomed into the world-beater he was projected to be. Kendrys Morales got a six-year deal from the Angels, but he didn’t blossom into a premium power source until his fifth year stateside. Jose Contreras was the object of a ferocious bidding war between the Yankees and Red Sox, only to wind up something of a bust in the Bronx before a trade to the White Sox yielded a couple of strong seasons on the South Side.
That isn’t to say Cuban players haven’t proved capable of playing, and there are several success stories: Alexei Ramirez with the White Sox; Orlando Hernandez as the ageless postseason hero; Livan Hernandez as the indestructible innings-eater.
It’s important to remember that the hype Cuban prospects seem to inevitably engender don’t always match the results. That reflects the oddities of Cuban baseball itself: It’s roughly similar to High-A minor league baseball in terms of overall talent, but add in the uneven talent distribution across the circuit, and you can wind up with noteworthy flops such as Alay Soler, Andy Morales and Ariel Prieto.
So, what did the Athletics get for their $36 million? That’s the question we don’t have the answer for, but as gambles go, you can understand why the A’s did it. It’s a bet Cespedes will provide premium outfield defense wherever they put him -- all the better to help a young pitching staff. And if Billy Beane wants to swing another deal, having Cespedes gives him the flexibility to shop Crisp.
But most of all, it’s an upside bet that Cespedes will deliver on the best-case projections, giving them star-level production they’d have a hard time affording if it was coming from an established big leaguer.