Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cespedes...or spend less

Yoenis Cespedes is officially a free agent. The much ballyhooed 26 year old Cuban defector is now currently the biggest name on the free agent market, and the Cubs are supposedly his top suitor.

My initial reaction to the idea of getting Cespedes has been negative. It just seems that most of the highly praised “mature” players who have come from other countries (and played professionally in those other countries) have never quite lived up to expectations at the Major League level.

Nothing in what I have read about Cespedes has convinced me of anything different. Cespedes’s stats in the Cuban league are close to video game levels. Last year he batted .333 with an OPS that approached 1.100. He also had 33 home runs and 99 RBI in only 90 games.

He’s a very good defender with an above average arm in the outfield. He is supposedly patient at the plate. He’s built like a fullback (could the Bears use him?) but has some pretty good speed. If you add it all together, he is the clichéd “5 tool” athlete.

So what’s the down side here? A couple of things…

First off, his experience is in the Cuban League, which most experts say is the equivalent of single-A minor league ball. So as a 25 year old, he played in single-A ball, putting him behind the development of most other minor league players. It’s difficult to say how Cespedes’s number will translate to the big leagues, but potentially he could be a .290 hitter hitting about 15 to 20 homers a season. That makes him look an awful lot like Marlon Byrd.

Second, his price, for someone that has only proven his success at a single-A level, is going to be extremely high. Two years ago, the Reds took a chance on Aroldis Chapman and paid him $30 million for 6 years. A good percentage of that is in a signing bonus, but still it is about $5 million a year. So far Chapman has been nothing more than a setup man for the Reds, though they may try to make him a starter again. His control has been a bit iffy and has started to show some injury problems. I bring up Chapman because it is assumed that Cespedes will sign for significantly more. My guess is that he might sign for 5 to 6 years at $40 to $50 million. That’s a bit frightening.

For me, I just don’t see the benefit for the Cubs to sign a player like Cespedes at the moment. It is assumed that after a brief stint in the minor leagues, he would be playing at the major league level. But at 26 years old, the Cubs will have to pay a high price to a player who technically should be reaching his prime but has never played higher than single-A ball. At the same time, Cespedes would be hitting his prime as the Cubs are in the middle of a rebuilding process. Cespedes should be a player who you are using to potentially push a team over the top to a division title or something of that sort.

While the Japanese leagues are better than the Cuban league, I look at signing Cespedes in a similar way to the signing of Kosuke Fukudome. The Cubs were coming off a division title in 2007 and looked to Fukudome to fill a hole to help maintain that success. They could afford to do that coming off a division title. The Cubs would have still been favored to win the NL Central in 2008 even if they had not signed Fukudome. Cespedes should be looked at in a similar fashion. Yes, he’s a bit younger, and a little less experienced, but he is likely to be looked at to make a contribution to the big league level in very short order.

The Cubs don’t need that right now. They are looking to develop talent. They should be looking at younger players who will spend a little more time in the minor leagues, and will be less of a financial hit than Cespedes will be. In fact, there is another Cuban defector, Jorge Soler, who is only 19 and has some of the same skills that Cespedes and will be a free agent soon as well. This might be a better alternative.

So far this offseason, the Cubs have acquired 2 types of players, mid-level veterans as place holders and younger prospects with many years of team control that they hope to develop. Cespedes really doesn’t fit under either of these categories. Soler does. Consistency would say that the Cubs would make a significant effort to sign Soler and save the money they could have spent on Cespedes to use in bolstering up player development and scouting other players. (But how the Cubs actually allocate all that money is a mystery.)

The power and overall stills that Cespedes has really is quite attractive and in years past should have made the Cubs and all of us fans drool. Things are different now and while it is a time for taking risks on prospects, paying $40 to $50 million for Cespedes doesn’t seem quite right when there are many other cheaper prospects that the Cubs could take a risk on.