What can fantasy owners expect from Yoenis Cespedes in his rookie season?
When Coco Crisp, Josh Willingham and David DeJesus all declared for free agency in October, the Oakland Athletics knew they'd have to acquire some outfield help in the offseason. The team spent the winter months doing just that. And then some.
In November, the A's signed free agents Jason Pridie and Brandon Moss. In December, they acquired Collin Cowgill from the Arizona Diamondbacks and Josh Reddick from the Boston Red Sox. In January, they re-signed Crisp, acquired Seth Smith from the Colorado Rockies and inked free agent Jonny Gomes. In February, they signed Manny Ramirez.
However, none of those acquisitions created headlines the way Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes did when he signed a four-year, $36 million contract with the A's in early March.
Although we know very little about 26-year-old Cespedes compared with prospects in the MLB minor league system, what we do know is impressive. He batted .458 with a double, three triples, two homers and five RBIs in six games in the World Baseball Classic back in 2009, and he hit .333 with 33 home runs, 99 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in just 90 games in the Cuban league last season. Then, of course, there's the YouTube "Showcase" video (complete with a snazzy Star Wars-esque intro), in which he shows off his superior athleticism by performing various workouts, including a 1,300-pound leg press.
In his career in the Cuban league, Cespedes produced the numbers below, according to claydavenport.com.
No doubt those stat lines are impressive on the surface, but trying to translate them to the big leagues is a different story altogether. It's hard enough to project Japanese players coming to the majors for the first time, much less players from Cuba, where information and data are much more difficult to come by. Regardless, the Cuban league often is compared to Class A, so Cespedes' numbers above, no matter how good, can't necessarily be taken at face value.
Looking at just the past three seasons, Cespedes sported a .334 batting average while averaging 26 homers and 81 RBIs in 341 at-bats. That's an average of one home run per every 13.1 at-bats. As a comparison, Matt Kemp, who led the National League with 39 dingers in 2011, hit one homer per every 15.4 at-bats last year. That's not to say Cespedes will maintain that type of power production in the major leagues. However, if there's one part of his game that should have little trouble translating to the majors, it's his power. With every-day playing time, he should display at least 20-homer pop, and 30-homer power isn't out of the question. Batting average might be another story, however, as scouts question his ability to hit for average at the big league level. In particular, they think he'll have difficulty with off-speed pitches, which he struggled with in his brief winter ball stint last year. Therefore, it's probably best to temper expectations on that front. In terms of stolen bases, double-digit steals are possible, and it's not unrealistic to think he eventually could flirt with 20 or more.
Although there isn't a long track record of players leaving the Cuban league for the major leagues, there are a couple of current hitters we can reference. The Chicago White Sox's Alexei Ramirez is probably the most notable. Below is a look at his six-year career in the Cuban league.
In six seasons, Ramirez sported a .331 career batting average and never hit worse than .308. He hit a career-best 20 home runs in 340 at-bats in 2007, which amounts to one homer per every 17 at-bats. In Ramirez's four-year career in the big leagues, he holds a .279 career batting average and has never hit better than .290. His best power season, when he hit 21 homers in 2008, translated to one homer per every 22.8 at-bats. Overall, that's a 52-point difference in career batting averages and a 5.8 at-bat difference in peak home run rate.
Based on power potential, Kendrys Morales might be a better comparison to Cespedes, although he didn't register nearly as many Cuban league at-bats before crossing over to the major leagues. In his only full season in Cuba, in 2002, Morales batted .324 with 21 homers and 82 RBIs in 352 at-bats. Morales made his first big league appearance with the Angels in 2006 but didn't receive substantial playing time until 2009, when he hit .306 with 34 homers and 108 RBIs (injuries have derailed his career since then, but he's looking on track to make a comeback in 2012). As it turns out, Morales' 16.7 HR/AB rate with the Los Angeles Angels in 2009 was nearly identical to his 16.8 HR/AB rate in Cuba in 2002.
Looking at Ramirez and Morales doesn't exactly provide us with great insight into how Cespedes will fare in the big leagues, but, at the very least, it provides us with a frame of reference for how a player's skills can translate from the Cuban league. Although neither Ramirez nor Morales has been able to match his Cuban league numbers -- particularly batting average -- both have been very productive players. Ramirez was a top-five fantasy shortstop in 2010, and Morales was a top-10 first baseman in 2009. If anything, their success paints an encouraging picture for Cespedes and his future prospects. He is, after all, the most highly regarded of the bunch.
As far as landing spots go, Oakland is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the Oakland Coliseum is far from a hitters' park, as it ranked in the bottom five in hits and home runs the past two years, according to ESPN Park Factors, so Cespedes' offensive upside might have a lower ceiling than in a more hitter-friendly venue. What he does have in Oakland, however, is opportunity. Although the A's are overloaded with outfielders, none of them will keep Cespedes from playing time. Whether he'll make the team out of spring training, though, remains to be seen. He probably would benefit from spending at least a month or two in the minors to start the season as he continues to get acclimated to professional baseball in the United States. However, considering he's already the highest-paid player on the A's (he's set to make $6.5 million in 2012, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts), he could very well open the regular season as the every-day center fielder or left fielder if he has a decent spring.
Although there's a good deal of uncertainty surrounding Cespedes this season, he remains an intriguing fantasy option not only because of his skill set but because he can be had in the late rounds in most drafts. According to ESPN's Live Draft Results, Cespedes is being drafted 46st among outfielders and 207nd overall. This means that, on average, he's being selected in the 21st round as a fifth outfielder in ESPN standard 10-team formats. At that point, why not take a shot on the toolsy 26-year-old? He's being drafted in the same range as players such as Alfonso Soriano, Matt Joyce and Jon Jay -- guys who are all easily replaceable in standard leagues. If Cespedes doesn't pan out, there will be plenty of serviceable options on the waiver wire, so the risk is minimal. He carries a bit more risk in deeper mixed leagues and AL-only formats, but, even then, the cost won't necessarily be prohibitive.
More than perhaps any other player in the player pool this season, Cespedes is a complete wild card. In addition to the questions regarding how his skills will translate to the majors, there are questions about how he'll adjust to life in the States and how he'll handle the rigors of a 162-game season (the Cuban league season lasts only 90 games). In the end, you might be rewarded with a 20/20 performer with a passable batting average; he could prove he can't hit big league pitching consistently and serve only as waiver wire fodder; or he could settle somewhere in the middle. It might sound like a cop-out to say "only time will tell," but it's the truth.
When you take everything into account with Cespedes, including his ADP, the upside far outweighs the risk. And getting upside on the roster while mitigating risk is often the key to fantasy championships. That makes him an intriguing fantasy option and someone worth consideration in the late rounds.