Yoenis Cespedes Is Talented, But No Overnight Star
In the international market, hyperbole and sensationalism at times seem like unstoppable forces.
At best, international scouts chuckle about the media portrayal of 26-year-old Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes going from anonymous to famous in an instant. Others take more offense, both for treating the player like a mysterious revelation rather than an accomplished, talented athlete, and because it ignores that scouts have spent years traveling across the world to watch Cespedes and his Cuban teammates in international competitions to make sure they were prepared for a defection.
Some scouts were amused, but most were relatively indifferent to a colorful YouTube video (which most first saw at a showcase for Cespedes on Friday) that featured the 5-foot-11, 215-pound Cespedes' various feats of strength and athleticism. While some teams do have more familiarity with Cespedes than others, the idea that he became known in baseball circles overnight is nonsense.
"Everyone's under the impression that this video is what's hyped him," said one international scouting director, "that all of a sudden he's a cult hero because of his video. That is crazy. For those of us who've done our jobs, who've seen this guy for years, this guy is no video surprise. This guy's been known forever. The perception I'm reading out there is that he's a new video cult hero. Everyone's been waiting for this guy to come out for years."
When reports surfaced in July that the righthanded-hitting Cespedes had defected, scouts told Baseball America that he would be one of the most coveted players on the market once he becomes a free agent. Cespedes still isn't a free agent—yet. As of now, Cespedes is in the Dominican Republic, working out at Edgar Mercedes' Born To Play academy and being represented by U.S.-based agent Adam Katz. He still is in the process of gaining his Dominican residency and having Major League Baseball declare him a free agent. Cespedes' camp is expecting him to become a free agent at some point this month.
When that happens, Cespedes will be in for a significant payday. Leonys Martin, who signed a five-year, $15.5 million contract with the Rangers this year, was essentially Cespedes' backup when both were on the Cuban national team. Scouts widely consider Cespedes the superior athlete and better overall player.
Based on conversations with scouts who have spent years tracking him, here's BA's guide to Yoenis Cespedes.
Cespedes has been one of the top players in Cuba's Serie Nacional
since his rookie year in 2003-2004, when he hit .302/.382/.503 for Granma as an 18-year-old. During the 2010-2011 season, Cespedes hit .333/.424/.667 with 49 walks (five intentional) and 40 strikeouts in 415 plate appearances over 90 games. He tied Jose Abreu for the Serie Nacional lead with 33 home runs during the 2010-2011 season, breaking Alfredo Despaigne's single-season home run record of 32, and led the league with 99 RBIs. While Cespedes was one of the top performers, his numbers need to be put into context, as the league hit a cumulative .298/.380/.458 last season. The league averaged 6.0 runs per nine innings last season, a level of offense that MLB hasn't seen in more than 100 years (MLB averaged 4.3 runs per nine innings in 2011, and reached 5.2 per nine in 2000).
Scouts, of course, can't hop on a flight to Cuba to go evaluate Cespedes or other Cuban players. International competitions with the Cuban national team are the best way for teams to scout Cubans, knowing they could defect at any time. Cespedes was a standout at the World Baseball Classic in 2009, when he hit .458/.480/1.000 with a pair of home runs, three triples, a double, one walk and five strikeouts in 24 at-bats over six games.
Cespedes struggled at the 2009 World Cup, but he we was an all-star at the FISU World University Championships in July-August 2010 in Japan, hitting .500 (11-for-22) with four home runs, two doubles, one walk and two strikeouts. Scouts saw him again at the 2010 Pan Ams qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico in October 2010, then again later that month at the Intercontinental Cup in Taiwan, though he started just two of seven games there and went 3-for-9 with a double and a walk.
"For guys from Cuba, it's important to make sure you get a lot of history on them," said one international scouting director. "You need to have the resources to have scouted them over time, and have different guys with different looks. One, you never know when they're going to defect, and two, a guy like Cespedes who's a higher profile guy, it might just be one workout, they open the bidding and it's millions of dollars. You could make a huge mistake, but you could be striking gold, too."
Mercedes' Born To Play academy held a showcase on Nov. 4 in Santiago at Estadio Cibao, the home park for Aguilas of the Dominican League. Other Born To Play eligible players and July 2 prospects for 2012 were in attendance, but scouts and executives went to the showcase largely to see Cespedes in his first and perhaps only open showcase before he signs.
The showcase came with flair. The promotional video that went on YouTube played on the big screen at the stadium before the showcase. Cespedes emerged in a black spandex track suit designed to show off his physique—"like a superhero," said one scout. In addition to running the 60-yard dash, Cespedes completed other drills more reminiscent of an NFL combine than a typical international prospect showcase, including a vertical leap and an agility timing drill. He did the standard showcase routine as well—fly balls in the outfield, throws from right field, batting practice and live BP—but the intention was to emphasize his athleticism and physical conditioning, which was immediately evident to scouts.
Cespedes started his first round of BP by taking the ball the other way, then put on a show with his pull power. On several occasions, according to multiple scouts, Cespedes cleared the entire park in left field and peppered the stadium's big signs in left and left-center field.
Cespedes took live BP against a free agent righthander who was mostly feeding him mid-80s fastballs. Cespedes feasted. While Cespedes wasn't facing major league-caliber competition, scouts were impressed with what he was able to show against a pitcher who was around the strike zone.
"That was pretty amazing," said a Latin American director. "I don't think I've ever seen anything like that, between the atmosphere, how it was carried and the talent."
It was eccentric, to be sure, but the importance of one single showcase for scouts has been wildly (and predictably) overblown. Some high-ranking international scouts didn't even attend the showcase, as it was more an opportunity for scouts and executives who hadn't seen him as extensively yet to get a first-hand look. Cespedes showed well, but it was hardly a coming out party.
"Nothing we saw was a surprise," said an international scouting director.
Cespedes has a track record of hitting, both in Cuba and during international tournaments. Cespedes' performance at the 2009 World Baseball Classic
(where he ranked No. 6 on our Top 20 World Baseball Classic prospects list) in particular seems to have made an impression on scouts and helped convince them of his ability to hit high-level pitching. He has excellent bat speed and has repeatedly shown the ability to smash a fastball, so there isn't much doubt about his ability to handle premium velocity.
"He's got a very balanced swing," said a Latin American director. "His lower half is very balanced. He doesn't load very much but he's strong and his hands are pretty quick. There weren't any of those crazy types of swings where the guy's just trying to hit the ball out of the park."
Cespedes' athleticism and pure physical tools (more on those later) aren't in doubt, and scouts don't have too much variance in opinion on how his other tools grade out. The most important (and very expensive) question is how his hitting while translate in pro ball, and his price tag will depend on teams' confidence in his bat.
Some scouts say that there is some loopiness to Cespedes' stroke, which they say causes his swing to get long at times. He has an aggressive swing, but he's not out of control. He's able to get the barrel out front because he has enough bat speed regardless of what some perceive as a loop in his swing.
"It's not that he really has length to his swing," said another Latin American director, "but what happens is he'll get out a bit on his stride, he'll bring his head forward and won't separate. Then because he's so power-conscious, instead of staying inside the ball his hands will shoot out from him, but that's only once in a while, and that happens to everyone."
Another scout concurred.
"We initially thought there was some length and loop, but there's not," the scout said. "He has a high bat wrap and he likes the fastball up, which he'll swing through early on in his career, but he'll connect on a few. If he makes the adjustment to drive the ball down in the zone and lay off the fastball up, he could be a monster. If he chases it, the numbers might not be what they should be."
Some scouts think Cespedes will be susceptible to offspeed pitches away, while others say they're comfortable with the way he's been able stay lay off soft stuff off the plate.
"Once he gets to the big leagues, pitchers are going to make adjustments to him," said one Latin American director. "They know he's going to want to hit the fastball, but he's shown the ability to hit a breaking pitch. Teams might go inside on him to see if they can test him, but I've seen him hit inside fastballs out of the park."
Cespedes' ability to control the strike zone is difficult to measure. The Serie Nacional
had a league walk rate (BB/PA) of 9.7 percent and a strikeout rate (K/PA) of 11.8 percent. In his last season in Cuba, Cespedes walked (11.1 percent) and struck out (9.6 percent) at a better rate than the league averages, but the difference is small and teams aren't likely to put more stock into what their evaluators see in person. As terrific as Cespedes' offensive numbers have been in Cuba, several top international scouts believe the caliber of the league's pitching has been down the last few years, particularly due to defections. Still, while the league may be lighter on pitchers who would profile in the major leagues, some scouts believe the league has given Cespedes the opportunity to face plenty of pitchers who know how to spin a breaking ball and are able to command their breaking stuff for strikes.
"The one thing that he does is he's able to make adjustments within the at-bat," said one international scouting director. "He might get fooled on an offspeed but then he'll make an adjustment, whether he's able to adjust on offspeed to get a hit or to lay off it out of the zone."
Scouts don't regard Cespedes as a pure hitter who will contend for a batting title; it's his power that will carry him. Several scouts said Cespedes has 70 raw power on the 20-80 scouting scale, with the potential to hit 25-30 home runs in the major leagues. Cespedes' power comes from his combination of bat speed and strength in both his upper and lower body. Cespedes comes up and through the ball and gets great extension, allowing the ball to fly off his bat. Cespedes has shown the ability to hit opposite-field home runs in games, but he stands out mostly for his tremendous pull-side power.
At the showcase on Friday, Cespedes ran the 60-yard dash in 6.5 seconds. Cespedes is built like a track and field athlete and scouts have said he's a 65-70 runner underway. Beyond just his pure speed, Cespedes is explosive, agile and in terrific physical condition. His promotional video shows him performing a 45-inch box jump, impressive not just for the jump but for the balanced landing on the box.
While some scouts think he has the raw power and speed to be a 30/30 player in the big leagues, others think that's too aggressive. In his last season in Cuba, Cespedes stole 11 bases in 14 attempts, though his relatively modest stolen base total could just be a matter of the way he was used in Cuba.
Cespedes is a center fielder and has the speed to play there right now. He has a thicker, more muscular frame than most center fielders, and while one scout said he thought Cespedes would profile better as a right fielder from the start, most scouts have said he should start out in center field.
Reviews of his instincts and reads off the bat vary. Some scouts believe he reads the ball off the bat well, others say his route running needs work, while others say they just don't have a great handle on his defensive instincts to speak confidently about them. However, even scouts that had some questions about his defensive instincts said he had plenty of speed to compensate.
Cespedes has a 60 arm, which would be a weapon in center field and plenty to play right field if he loses a step or for a team that wants to sign him but already has a plus defensive center fielder. His arm stroke isn't fluid, as it's shorter than most outfielders and gives his throwing mechanics some funkiness. Regardless of how he does it, his throws have plenty of carry and scouts have generally been pleased with his accuracy.
"I don't care how it looks," said one scout, "as long as it gets there and gets guys out."
Teams constantly wrestle with how to both define and evaluate makeup. The process becomes even trickier when dealing with Cuban players, but it's arguably more important for teams to get their makeup evaluations correct with Cubans than with any other players, including 16-year-old amateur signings out of Latin America. The changes and stresses that Cuban defectors have to go through and live with every day of their lives, including transitioning to what can be a shocking change in culture, living with incredible newfound wealth, dealing with the grind of U.S. professional baseball and the worries of safety of friends and family members often left behind in Cuba is beyond the scope of this story.
Teams try to evaluate makeup using the same principles they do with other players, but unlike when dealing with a potential July 2 signing, teams obviously can't go into the home of a Cuban prospect to get to know him and the family. Scouts rely on their networks, try to find people who have been close to the player at some point and gather any bit of information through the resources they have to figure out everything they can about the player.
While Cespedes is estranged from his father, he is by all accounts very close with his mother, Estela Milanes Salazar. The two defected from Cuba together and are in the Dominican Republic with a handful of cousins. Cespedes' mother was an accomplished athlete herself, having pitched for the Cuban national softball team from 1988-2003, including an appearance on Cuba's 2000 Olympic team. Cespedes also has a two-year-old son who is still in Cuba with his ex-wife. Teams have consistently praised Cespedes' work ethic, character and dedication, and several scouts said his maturity level to be able to handle the transition is well beyond where Aroldis Chapman was when he arrived from Cuba.
How soon can Cespedes contribute to a major league team? Most scouts seem to believe he can contribute in 2012, though where he starts will likely depend on a few factors. At 26, Cespedes is older than Cuban prospects like Martin, Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias or Blue Jays shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, and is entering the typical physical prime of a player's career. In terms of pure talent, some scouts believe Cespedes could be in a team's 2012 Opening Day lineup, much the way Alexei Ramirez went straight to the major leagues with the White Sox at age 26.
"Personally, I'm always cautious to say a guy could jump right into the big leagues," said an international scouting director. "Talent-wise, for sure, but you just don't know the transition he needs mentally to go there. I'd say certainly count on him helping out at some point the first year, it's just a matter of bringing him into spring training, see how he handles the environment, and if he's not ready, don't push it."
If Cespedes doesn't start in the big leagues, he would almost certainly open in Triple-A. However, given that the team that signs him will likely have an immediate need for him in either center or possibly right field, the odds are good that he will begin his career in a major league uniform. Then again, Cespedes hasn't played competitive baseball since Granma was eliminated from the playoffs on April 2, so an immediate big league job isn't a guarantee.
Where will Cespedes sign? Several scouts believe the Yankees are going to make a strong push for Cespedes. The Yankees did have a private workout with Cespedes on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Rangers senior director of player personnel A.J. Preller and international scouting director Mike Daly were also at the workout on Monday, because the Rangers were playing the Yankees in a Dominican instructional league game, though it's not known whether they might pursue Cespedes.
Among the more unusual names to pop up as a potential destination for Cespedes is the Marlins, who are opening a new ballpark and have a new manager, Ozzie Guillen, who baseball sources say was instrumental in helping Ramirez transition to the United States and in the development of Cubans such as Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo with the White Sox. The Marlins haven't done much internationally in recent years, so teams aren't quite sure what to make of the Marlins' reported interest, but several teams have mentioned the Marlins as a serious possibility to sign him. Owner Jeffrey Loria, Guillen and a host of front office staff were scheduled to have a private workout with Cespedes today.
The Phillies and Red Sox have workouts with him next week. The Cubs, Nationals and Tigers are all believed to have some level of interest, as do other teams, though major league need and financial limits will play a role.
The level of interest in Cespedes will be high, but it's also nothing new. Scouts have been anticipating his arrival for years.