Yoenis Cespedes a talent and a mystery
Cuban free-agent outfielder could command in the neighborhood of a $50 million deal
Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes has yet to play a game in the major leagues, and some scouts are already comparing him to former Los Angeles Dodgers All-Star Raul Mondesi. Personnel people with more active imaginations take a look at that sculpted 6-foot, 215-pound physique and those quick-twitch muscles and think more along the lines of Bo Jackson.
Rene Gayo, director of Latin American scouting for the Pittsburgh Pirates, prefers a more obscure comparison: He likens Cespedes to former Houston outfielder Jimmy "The Toy Cannon'' Wynn, who made three All-Star teams and hit 291 home runs during a 15-year career in the 1960s and '70s.
Few people mention Pittsburgh as a prime candidate to sign Cespedes, given his perceived price tag, but Gayo's opinion carries a lot of weight. He's a respected voice in Latin scouting, and along with the Phillies' Sal Agostinelli, he has probably seen more of Cespedes than any big-time talent evaluator in the game. After watching Cespedes perform in several international tournaments, he's convinced the young outfielder has the goods to be an impact player.
"He has great game skills,'' Gayo said. "That's why I like him. When they say 'play ball,' he gets it done.
"When you watched Cuba play, he was definitely a guy who had a star next to his name. Just because a guy defects and is Cuban, it doesn't mean he's a big league prospect. This guy is the real deal.''
In the coming weeks, there will be inevitable questions about the mixed bag of success for Cuban players in the majors and Cespedes' ability to make the requisite on-field and cultural adjustments. But Gayo sees no insurmountable hurdles for Cespedes, who defected from Cuba last summer.
"This guy is used to playing baseball with Fidel Castro behind the backstop,'' Gayo said. "That's comparable to having the devil on horseback watching you. So I don't think he's going to be scared of some Americans.''
The big question, once the red tape is cleared and the market forces play out, revolves around where Cespedes will land. And once the bidding war unfolds, how much will a team be willing to pay for a long-term stake in his future?
Cespedes (pronounced "Yo-EN-ess SES-peh-des'') is in a holding pattern right now. He's moving closer to establishing residency in the Dominican Republic, and then he can apply to Major League Baseball to go through the free-agent process. His agent, Adam Katz of the Wasserman Media Group, declined to pinpoint a timetable, but said the transition has gone smoothly to this point. He calls Cespedes a "strong character guy'' and a "joy to work with.''
"I'm just getting to know him too,'' Katz said. "He's only been here several months. It's a process to get integrated out of the Cuban culture and into the Dominican culture, and I've been extremely impressed with his maturity and balance as a guy. He does everything we ask of him with a lot of passion and focus and intensity. He's terrific.''
Just to clarify, although some reports have spelled Cespedes' first name with two "n's,'' the correct spelling calls for only one, Katz said.
Regardless of how his name is spelled or pronounced, Cespedes has reason to believe he will be very well compensated before the start of spring training. Although baseball's new collective bargaining agreement restricts the amount of money teams can spend on international signees, those rules don't apply to Cespedes. For the next two years, Cubans who are at least 23 years old and have three years of experience in a professional league are exempt from any bonus limitations, with the rules subject to negotiation and change after that.
Cespedes, 26, meets both requirements, so he's free and clear to reach for the sky.
When Katz says teams should view Cespedes as a "free-agent outfielder'' rather than pigeonhole him as a "Cuban free-agent outfielder,'' clubs take it as a sign that Cespedes aspires to much more than the $30.25 million deal that pitcher and fellow Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman signed with Cincinnati in 2010. The buzz in baseball circles is that it will take north of $50 million to sign Cespedes, and in recent weeks the estimates have drifted considerably higher.
The ground rules don't appear to be scaring off potential suitors. Washington general manager Mike Rizzo and Boston GM Ben Cherington have traveled to the Dominican Republic to see Cespedes up close, and Detroit GM David Dombrowski reportedly plans to make the trip soon. The Yankees, Marlins, Cubs, Phillies, Pirates, Orioles, Blue Jays, Indians and Athletics have also expressed varying degrees of interest in Cespedes, with about two-thirds of those teams projecting him to play center field and the rest looking at him to play right.
Given Cespedes' potential cost, some clubs have shifted their focus to Jorge Soler, a 19-year-old outfielder who also defected from Cuba this year and will need more development time in the minors. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Phillies scouting director Marti Wolever was "extremely impressed'' after watching Soler work out. But in Gayo's opinion, Soler is "not in the same class'' with Cespedes as a player.
Statistically speaking, Cespedes has a lot to recommend him. Last year he hit 33 home runs, tied with Jose Dariel Abreu for tops among Cuban players and one more than the former league record held by Alfredo Despaigne. He has played in the Pan American Games, the Intercontinental Cup and the 2009 World Baseball Classic, where Gayo ranked him with infielder Yulieski Gourriel as one of the two best players on the Cuban squad.
Earlier this offseason, Cespedes' agents distributed a 20-minute video, titled "Yoenis Cespedes: The Showcase,'' that captured him doing everything except changing clothes in a phone booth and dragging an 18-wheeler 100 yards with his teeth.
Physically this guy is everything you would want in an athlete. Does he have home run strength? Yes. Does he have running speed? Yes. Is he explosive? Yes. He has a good first step, and it looks like he can field at an above-average level.” -- An American League scouting
director on Yoenis Cespedes
The video featured music from Chris Brown, Jay-Z and Christopher Cross, and showed Cespedes hitting moon shots, blazing through a 60-yard dash, displaying a 45-inch vertical jump and performing 1,300-pound leg presses. The video concludes with Cespedes roasting a pig on a spit during a backyard barbecue and giving a shoutout to former Green Bay Packers running back Ahman Green, who visited the Dominican earlier this year to help him with his training regimen.
In early November, Cespedes held an open audition for clubs in the Dominican Republic. A National League scout called it a bit of a "dog and pony show,'' but said that Cespedes acquitted himself well.
"He didn't look intimidated or scared or any of that,'' the scout said. "He looked like he was having fun, actually.''
ESPN.com solicited opinions on Cespedes from three talent evaluators -- the first two who attended his workout -- and got the following responses:
• "Physically this guy is everything you would want in an athlete,'' said an American League scouting director. "Does he have home run strength? Yes. Does he have running speed? Yes. Is he explosive? Yes. He has a good first step, and it looks like he can field at an above-average level. The arm is good, not great. It's going to come down to his ability to hit for average, because that's going to allow some of that raw strength to come into play.''
• "He's physically comparable to a guy like Bo Jackson,'' said the NL scout. "He's a powerfully built kid and very athletic. He's an outstanding kid with some aptitude, so maybe he's a guy you hit on. I just want better odds for $50 million. You're betting more on the come at 26 years old than you want to. We have no guarantees with this stuff, and that's the problem. If I'm spending that kind of money, I need to have the odds reduced somehow, and it's impossible with these guys. With the Japanese players, I think you get a little better gauge. People see those guys play in a lot more games, and even the track record there is not that good. We're a lot more up in the air with this 'Cuban aura.'"
Finally, there was this email from a front-office man with a National League club:
• "He's a five-tool, high-ceiling guy with some concerns about his swing and miss,'' the executive said. "He's more likely to hit 30 homers than hit .300 and probably compares best to somebody like Cameron Maybin, but with more power if less range and speed. He's stronger and more stocky and may end up on an outfield corner in a few years, but for now he can play center field For a club like the Yankees or Boston who can afford those investments [and are both predominately left-handed], he makes some sense.''
As an added bonus, Cespedes has major league genes. His mother, Estela Milanes, was a pitcher on Cuba's 2000 Olympic softball team. By all accounts, he has a strong work ethic and a zest for the game that transcends the lure of all those dollars and cents.
"He's very grounded,'' Gayo said. "His reason for playing is to be good. A lot of these guys just want to get paid. He's not like that. He wants to be good.''
For the amount of money he's seeking, Cespedes better be very good. The journey is under way, and as each day goes by he moves a step closer from "Yoenis Cespedes: The Showcase'' to a new life in The Show.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.