Back in November, 26-year-old outfielder Yoenis Cespedes entered the public conscience after his agent and trainers released what has to be the most unique, and simply ridiculous, scouting video that anybody in the baseball world had ever seen. Set to music you’d be more likely to hear at one of my fraternity’s parties than off of any GM’s iPod, the video showed 20 minutes of just about everything besides Cespedes actually playing baseball. The video includes something along the lines of eight or nine actual swings, most of which show footage of him cranking balls out of the yard in his native Cuba or in PETCO park during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. As for his defense, well, you can be quite sure he can catch a fly ball behind his back. Other than that, the video left us pretty much in the dark as to his playing abilities.
However, the video did not hold back in displaying Cespedes’ athleticism. Among several other herculean feats of strength, Cespedes shows off a 45-inch vertical leap and leg-presses 1,300 in the form of a heavily weighted bar AND two of his friends. In December, Cespedes released a second video that much more prominently displayed his baseball skills. Nearly a half-hour long, the second video shows off Cespedes’ impressive power (he set a Cuban National Series record for home runs with 33 last season), heralded speed, and cannon of an arm. It’s not difficult to see why Cespedes’ pro day attracted nearly 200 scouts from almost every big-league organization. Cespedes also one-ups himself with a 50-inch vertical leap, and shows off his athletic ability with a 37-inch vertical reach, which the video tells us places him just between NBA MVPs Kobe (38”) and Derrick Rose (35”). Just in case the baseball thing doesn’t work out.
Cespedes has defected to the Dominican and begun the process of establishing residency to make himself eligible to MLB teams as an International Free Agent. When he does become eligible, most scouts and executives believe he will cash in with a deal exceeding Aroldis Chapman’s six-year, $30.25M contract, possibly by tens of millions. Industry buzz suggests the Cespedes bidding could push through the $50M mark. The Marlins, Nationals, and Yankees are currently considered the frontrunners, although the White Sox, Tigers, Cubs, and a number of other teams are rumored to be interested. After giving up Josh Reddick in the Andrew Bailey deal, the Red Sox are sorely in need of a right fielder, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Boston step up its pursuit of Cespedes as well.
After watching both Cespedes videos, I have a hard time believing that a commitment that large will pay off. His swing generates considerable power, but that power is almost certain to come at the cost of his ability to hit the ball with authority consistently. His swing path is long and loopy, suggesting that he’ll have to cheat to catch up to big-league heat. If that’s the case, he’ll have problems with MLB pitchers’ secondary stuff, especially because they do a better job of disguising their off-speed and breaking pitches than the pitchers with whom Cespedes is familiar. Cespedes looks like a mistake hitter, and the reality is that guys like that generally aren’t successful in MLB. While pitchers in the Cuban National Series or the low minors may make enough mistakes to allow such players to hit at lower levels, that’s rarely the case in the majors.
Cespedes’ Cuban National Series stats are certainly impressive, but comparing him to other Cuban hitters leaves me with the conclusion that the Cuban league’s pitching simply isn’t that good. His .333 batting average in 2011 looks strong to those of us most familiar with MLB stats, but isn’t quite as impressive when you consider it places him 34th in the Cuban league. Two Cubans hit above .400 on the Series last season, so expectations need to be kept in check. Cespedes has performed impressively, but he’s 26 in a league with a talent level equivalent to single- or double-A. Without the ability to consistently make solid contact, his power is essentially a moot point. While Cespedes may eventually adapt to the skill level of MLB pitchers, that’s not remotely close to being a sure thing. If he’s able to command anything close to his asking price in his eventual deal, that’s a pretty big gamble.
I also have doubts about Cespedes’ ability to remain in center throughout the length of his contract. While he’s a fantastic athlete, he’s also a very large individual. At 6’0”, 215 lbs, Cespedes is up there with the largest centerfielders in recent history. Among centerfielders approaching Cespedes’ weight, there are a variety of aging curves. Carlos Beltran and Andruw Jones aged about as gracefully as any of these players, playing plus defense in center (according to UZR) until their age 30 and 31 seasons, respectively. Others began to deteriorate on defense well before that. Although Marlon Byrd has experienced a resurgence over the last two years, he’s accumulated –6.9 UZR since his age 27 season. Vernon Wells has a ghastly UZR of –40.7 in center in the four years since he turned 29 (including last year, when he played only 79.1 innings at the position). Despite the fact that he continued to win Gold Gloves for years afterward (another issue entirely), Torii Hunter has averaged –3 UZR/year since his age-28 season. Mercifully, the Angels also decided to move him to a corner full-time last season. If Cespedes is a right fielder long-term, that’s not exactly a death sentence, especially given his rocket arm, but it does mean he’ll need to provide even more value on offense to make a deal worthwhile.
Overall, Cespedes certainly has an impressive set of tools, and has the potential to contribute on both sides of the ball. However, given the rumors about the contract he’s likely to command, Cespedes represents a huge risk for whatever team decides to take the plunge. Cespedes may represent the ultimate risk-reward gamble, as he could turn out to be anything from a perennial all-star to a colossal bust. The way I see it, the chances of the latter far exceed the former. If given the option, I’d pass on Cespedes in favor of a less-hyped but slightly more proven player, reducing both risk and potential reward.
Click here for Call to the Pen’s analysis of this offseason’s moves, and make sure to check back at CttP for our take when Cespedes inks with an MLB club.