Monday, February 13, 2012
Is missing out on Cespedes really a bad thing for the Marlins?
By now you've heard the news. Yoenis Cespedes agreed to terms on a four-year, $36 million contract with the Oakland Athletics.
Judging by the response from Marlins fans on Twitter, you are probably still up in arms about this news as you read this sentence.
Understandably so, you are frustrated that one of the hottest names of the winter will be playing elsewhere this summer. It probably irks you even more that that Marlins have been linked to Cespedes since his ridiculous workout video was posted on Youtube months ago.
You had him penciled in your Opening Day lineup, playing center field and hitting right behind Mike Stanton. Visions of prodigious power numbers and a potential run at the Phillies filled your head for months.
Now your mind is filled with curse words and frustration as Cespedes will suit up for the lowly Athletics instead of your beloved Marlins.
Well let me put your mind at ease for a bit.
It's not the end of the world.
The Marlins will still be a competitive team in 2012.
Missing out on Cespedes might actually be a good thing.
Wait a minute, what?!
Did he just say missing out on a guy who runs shirtless behind a car in the Dominican Republic, can leg press a small country and hits batting practice home runs so impressive that they look like any other big leaguer's BP home runs was a good thing?
This Villavicencio guy has lost his mind!
Before you call the people running the looney bin, give me a minute and hear me out.
Cespedes is a relative unknown. What I mean by that is there is not much to go off to evaluate him. He hasn't played against top competition very much and has seen his star rise while dominating in his native Cuba.
I know Cuba has a reputation of playing high quality baseball but the truth is he is playing in a league that most baseball people consider equivalent to A-ball here in the minor leagues. That is a long, long LONG way from the big leagues in terms of competition.
His unknown status is increased by the fact that he is Cuban so he is secluded on an island that people cannot readily scout. Big league teams have academies and scouts in Dominican Republic and Venezuela and they also scour Puerto Rico looking for top talent year-round. But they cannot do that in Cuba and really have no incentive to do so because they can't sign anyone from Cuba until they defect.
This does not mean that big league teams are out of the loop when it comes to Cuban players but they definitely do not have as much information and visual scouting time on those players than they would on guys who come from other Latin American countries.
When a team signs a kid out of Venezuela or the Dominican Republic, they have typically spent a ton of time scouting him, evaluating him and trying to project what he can ultimately become as a ballplayer. There are no guarantees that the kid fulfills those projections but they can at least take an educated guess at what they are getting when they invest money and resources into the player.
With Cespedes, they have what they have seen in international competitions such as the World Baseball Classic, a workout held in the Dominican Republic, a small sample size in Winter Ball this year and that ridiculous video. Let's break these down one at a time.
International tournaments are an interesting place to evaluate talent because you get the opportunity to see people against different levels of competition. In Cespedes' case, you can see him go against some of the best baseball talent in the world. An opportunity to see him against players from the United States, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Japan would be great because we can see how he handles tougher competition.
Cespedes excelled in the 2009 WBC, hitting .458 with a double, three triples, and two home runs. He posted an impressive 1.480 OPS while helping Cuba advance to the second round of the tournament.
You look at those numbers and you have to be salivating because he absolutely crushed top international competition. But if you look closer, you'll see he didn't face very good competition at all.
Cespedes and his Cuban teammates played in Pool B with Mexico, Australia and South Africa. Those are not three hot beds of baseball talent. Delve deeper into his experience in Pool B and you'll find the closest thing he faced to a big league pitcher was Australia's Damian Moss. The lefty pitched for the Braves, Giants, Orioles and Devil Rays in his career but was five years removed from his final big league appearance when he gave up a homer to Cespedes in the WBC.
But then came the playoffs. Cespedes went 2-for-4 against Japan. Daisuke Matsuzaka started that game and Hisashi Iwakuma also pitched in it. That's two big league pitchers. I can't find if he got a hit off of either pitcher but that is just one game and it is too small of a sample to take positively or negatively. For the sake of this argument, let's say it was a good sign to see a good game against Japan.
In his next game he tripled off of Mexico's Francisco Rodriguez. Not K-Rod but this guy. Still, Cespedes had success against a guy who is now a big leaguer. Another positive.
In his final game in the 2009 WBC, Cespedes tripled off of Iwakuma. If you don't recognize the name, you will when you watch him pitch this year for the Mariners. Iwakuma failed to agree to terms with Oakland last winter so he returned to Japan before signing with Seattle this off-season. He is expected to be an impact Japanese import for the Mariners.
So Cespedes got a grand total of four hits off of Major League talent in the 2009 WBC. I know it is a very small sample size but that kind of makes those gaudy numbers look a little less impressive doesn't it?
Next on the list are his workouts in the Dominican Republic. These were open to any big league team interested in taking a look at what Cespedes was about. Obviously I didn't attend the workouts but I know that any workout is meant to showcase a player. They put Cespedes in the best position to succeed and showcase his strengths as a player.
To give you a comparison, I present JaMarcus Russell and his pro day workout at LSU. We all know Russell was a colossal bust in the NFL but he looked all-world in his pro day. They showcased his incredible arm strength and had him throw familiar routes to familiar receivers. He was put in a situation that made him look like a lock to be a future star.
You have to believe Cespedes' agent, Adam Katz, and his adviser, Edgar Mercedes, did the same for their client in his workouts. They showcased him as a physical specimen, hitting batting practice home runs of epic proportions and running like a world class sprinter. You're supposed to look good in a workout. Cespedes did that. But that doesn't mean he will become a good big leaguer.
Now let's briefly examine his experience in the Dominican Winter League. The DWL is a competitive winter league that is full of big leaguers and guys close to the big leagues. It is definitely viewed as a higher level of competition than the Cuban League Cespedes dominated.
Only this time, Cespedes was getting dominated instead of dominating. It was just 10 games but Cespedes looked terrible. He went 5-for-35 with one home run and 10 strikeouts. That is a putrid performance to say the least.
Is it indicative of future failure? Not necessarily.
Cespedes had not played in competitive games for a long time so rust was certainly a factor but he did look lost at the plate. He struggled to hit breaking pitches and had a very long swing. Could that be a result of being rusty? Maybe but that is the same long swing you saw in the WBC and in his video. Seems to me like the long swing is the actual swing. Can that be corrected? Probably but you don't know for sure and you don't know if he will be the same power hitter if he does correct his flaws. That should definitely be a concern.
Finally, we have his scouting video. This might be the least informative 20 minutes you could find on Cespedes. You don't learn much that is actually useful from this video.
He hits a ton of batting practice home runs. Fantastic! Every big leaguer does that. Even guys like Emilio Bonifacio can hit homers on every pitch in batting practice if they wanted to. In fact, Ichiro has a reputation of being one of the most impressive hitters in batting practice in terms of home run length and you never see him do that in a game.
He runs really fast shirtless behind a car. Outstanding! Glad to know he would have no trouble running on South Beach on his weekends off.
He leg presses every weight in the Dominican Republic and then a few Dominicans themselves. Great! Nice to know he can pinch hit for my jack if I ever get a flat tire.
You barely see him do any defensive work and when you do see him play the outfield, he is messing around and catching balls behind his back. You never see his form or his range. That is something that you'd like to see from someone who is a potential center fielder. If his range is limited, he is not as valuable because he won't be able to play center field. You also never see him throw. Kind of important for an outfielder who is supposed to have a strong and accurate arm.
The video did a great job of making Cespedes an internet sensation but did little to make him seem like a potential big league star. It hardly answered any questions surrounding his potential for success in the Majors.
Speaking of potential success in the Majors, scouts aren't sure what to make of it.
Having spent three years covering Major League Baseball, I have been fortunate enough to get to know a bunch of scouts around the league and they are all split on Cespedes.
They all see potential for stardom but they also see plenty of bust in Cespedes. They see the holes in the swing and the long swing. They question whether he can truly play center field. They wonder if he will develop into a true impact bat or if he will be a third or fourth outfielder. The scouts have a lot of questions and they see a lot of flaws in Cespedes' game.
Will Cespedes play in the Majors? Absolutely.
Will he live up to the hype and now the contract that came with it? Probably not.
Most baseball people I have spoken to have Cespedes pegged to be a .250-.270 hitter that will hit 20-25 homers and strike out a lot. A bunch of baseball people are confident he will not be able to defend in center field and will ultimately end up playing in one of the corners.
It was those opinions coming from highly knowledgeable baseball men that first got me thinking that signing Cespedes would not be a wise investment.
As I considered their opinions and gathered more information, I began to form my own opinion of Cespedes. It seemed clear that he was far more likely to be the next Hideki Irabu, Kei Igawa, Hee Seop Choi or Kenji Johjima than the next Ichiro, Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez or Kendry Morales.
It appears that the success rate for these big name international free agents is not nearly as high as you'd like it to be. Even if Cespedes became a solid big leaguer like Livan Hernandez or Jose Contreras, that would be a disappointment because you expected so much more from him. You had built up this larger than life image of him and were not going to be satisfied until he became a potential MVP candidate.
Ultimately, I became convinced that signing Cespedes was going to cost too much for what the reasonable expected return would be. He simply would not live up to the hype and would never be that major impact bat that teams are always looking for.
Despite spending all of this time mentioning the issues with Cespedes, I want to be clear. I am not bashing him nor do I have anything against him. I am happy that he was able to sign a lucrative contract and I hope he proves me and all the others who question if he will ever be a true star wrong. I just am not confident that he will be able to do so.
But I'll tell you one thing that I am confident about.
I am confident that the Marlins may have just dodged a $36 million bullet.