15 February 2012

Yoenis Cespedes: Why the A's Just Threw Away $36M

The normally frugal Oakland A's this week signed outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, the latest Cuban defector, who is expected to be...well, nobody knows exactly what to expect from him. Oakland paid $36 million for him for four years, but it's likely that the small market club doled out a good deal more than any of his other suitors were offering, if only because they actually signed him and the others did not.

Additionally, you would imagine that to entice such a prospective talent to come to a team as abysmal as the A's, you would have to offer significantly more than the competition. Consider also that the Marlins, his most oft-mentioned suitor before the actual signing, play in a state that has no state income tax, and that California's is 10.3% for people making over a million per year. With both factors in play, you would indeed have to assume a formidable gap between the respective teams' offers. His agent, Adam Katz, would surely have advised him of these considerations, even if he was unfamiliar with them, having just gotten off the boat, so to speak.

But those issues ultimately pale in comparison to the question of how good Cespedes really is. Projections range all over, and while he apparently has great tools (and a bold and unconventional marketing department) it's literally anybody's guess what he's going to be capable of on a major league field, 1000-lb squat presses notwithstanding.

The history of Cuban prospects, particularly those who have broken in as free agents after defecting, is frankly abysmal. Since 1960, when Cuba became communist and the United States essentially severed economic ties with it, there have been 45 Cuban born players in MLB.

When you weed out the pitchers, you're left with 20 players, and most of them came through the draft after having gone to high school in Miami or something like that. Of those 20, 13 have played 100 or more games in the majors,though several are young enough to yet have a significant career in the majors. 

Only seven Cuban born players have produced more than one WAR for their careers, according to baseball-reference.com, though several others had careers of considerable length, even with out a substantially positive career WAR total.  Even that isn't worthless, we must realize, as those players had to have good seasons sprinkled in with the bad ones in order to achieve a net result of about zero. 

Normally, if you wanted an analysis of what Cespedes would do, you would perhaps take an average of what has been accomplished by all players like him, while controlling for as many factors as you can (age, handedness, defensive position, body type, etc.).  The trouble is that we have so few players to use for such an analysis that it would be moot. So instead I'll look at each player more or less individually, and we'll see if there's anything to be learned.

First of all, let's look at the players who were born in Cuba but drafted in the US, typically because they were children when their parents defected from Cuba.

Jose Canseco - Drafted out of high school in the 15th round in 1982, won 1986 AL RoY, 1988 AL MVP, the first "40 HR - 40 SB" player in history, "better living through chemistry" and all that rot. Clearly talented, but we'll never know what he's have been if he wasn't Juiced.

Rafael Palmeiro - Drafted out of college in the 1st round in 1985, one of a handful of players with 3000 hits and 500 homers, will never get into the Hall of Fame because of a failed drug test and the ensuing scandal that ended his career.

*For the record, Jose and Raffy own about half of all the at-bats and hits and almost 3/4 of all major league homers by Cuban players born in the last half century.

Ozzie Canseco - Jose's twin brother, drafted as a pitcher a year later than Jose, by the Yankees in the 2nd round. After a few unremarkable years pitching in the minors, the Yanks tried to turn him into a hitter on the assumption that he couldn't be that much worse than his MVP brother. But he was.

Orestes Destrade - Though the slugging firstbaseman was signed originally as an undrafted free agent, it wasn't for a lack of effort. The Angels tried to draft him in 1980 but he didn't sign, and the Yanks got him a year later. He had some power but little else and never made a mark in the majors in the 80's, then went to Japan for a few years before signing with the expansion Marlins in 1993. He went back to Japan after the 1994 season for a year and has been doing broadcasting ever since.

Eli Marrero - Third round draft pick by the Cards in 1993, Marrero played parts of 10 seasons with seven different teams in the majors, rarely getting into more than half of his team's games. You can do worse than to have a career as a major league reserve/platoon catcher, but clearly he was no star.

Alex Sanchez - This 5th round 1996 draft pick is the type of player who should have "Run, Don't Walk" tattooed on his person somewhere.  Sanchez spent parts of five seasons in the majors with four different teams. He had speed, but no patience or power and did not particularly steal bases well (122 steals, but 58 times caught) or play good defense. He was notably the first major league player ever suspended under the new MLB drug testing program.

Nelson Santovenia - Another first round draft pick, 19th overall in 1982, this catcher played parts of seven seasons with three different teams, and his best season involved hitting .236 with 8 homers.

Yunel Escobar - Currently with his second MLB team, the starting short stop for the Blue Jays, this 2nd round draft pick has decent patience and bat control, hits for modest average and power and plays good defense. He'll never be a star, but is worth a couple of wins per year over a replacement level player.

To date, only four free agent Cuban defectors have had significant careers: Rey Ordonez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Alexei Ramirez and Kendrys Morales. Ordonez, of course was thought to be the second coming of Ozzie Smith, and while he had considerable talents as a defensive shortstop - he won three Gold Gloves and probably deserved at least two of them - he had neither the modest offensive skills nor the longevity of the Wizard, and was out of the majors at age 33, his ninth season in the bigs.

Several others have defected in the last decade or so, and most of them are still around somewhere. These players are of particular interest because they were free agents and therefore able to negotiate deals on the open market, unlike drafted players or those won in a lottery, like Ordonez.

Brayan Pena - A true backup catcher, Pena is now 30 years old and unlikely to make an impact on the major leagues, but with parts of seven major league seasons under his belt, including the last three as the Royals backup backstop. He was signed for an undisclosed amount by the Braves in 2000 and got a few cups of coffee with them before going to KC. Again, no star, but good enough to stick on most major league benches.

Juan Diaz - Signed for an undisclosed amount by the Dodgers in 1996, Diaz hit with some pop in the minors but got only a 2002 cup of coffee with Boston in MLB and has basically been out of the system since 2006. He's now thrilling the crowds in places like Joliet and Winnipeg in the Northern League, never having really made it to the show.

Michel Hernandez - Signed by the Yankees as a free agent in 1998, he's your basic catch and throw guy behind the plate, which is to say he'll never hit enough to get a job in the majors, especially given that he's now 33. He's gotten a handful of at bats with the Yanks and later the Rays, but will probably never see a major league field again unless he buys a ticket.

Barbaro Canizares - Free agent signed by the Braves in 2006, he's hit for decent averages with patience and doubles power in the high minors, but was allowed to go to the Mexican Leagues last year because the Braves had an even better prospect, Freddie Freeman, who hit even more and is only 21. Canizares hit .396 in Mexico in 2011, which is notorious for inflating offense but hey, three-ninety six?!??!! Give the guy a shot, right? Anyway, he's 32, so probably not.

Now we're getting into the handful of known commodities, at least in terms of their actual contracts.

Juan Miranda - Miranda defected in 2004, at the age of 21, and signed with the Yankees for about $2 million over four years in 2006. He's hit for modest numbers in the minors (.282/.373/.477 over four seasons in AAA) and has gotten a few at-bats in the majors, but isn't likely to be an impact player. When he was signed, a Yankee official said, "Miranda is projected to hit over 20 home runs and hit .280. He doesn't swing at bad pitches." Presumably the official meant that he would be able to do that in the majors, not at AAA, but we haven't seen it yet, and at almost 29 years old, time is running out. Presumably if the Yankees thought he was likely to do that, they'd have offered him more than a shade over the major league minimum salary for those four seasons.

Dayan Viciedo - Defected in 2008 at age 19 and was signed by the White Sox for four years and $10 million. His numbers were all with the Cuban junior circuit, but they were impressive enough to merit that contract, and he has not disappointed so far. He's improved in each year in the minors and spent parts of the last two seasons with the ChiSox as an occasional RF, DH or firstbaseman. He's projected as the starting RF for the Pale Hose in 2012, now that Carlos Quentin is gone, but he's a DH waiting to happen, if Adam Dunn doesn't bounce back from his miserable 2011 campaign.

Jose Iglesias - Signed to a four year, $8.2 million contract by the Red Sox in 2009, he was regarded as their best prospect before the 2011 season, but then hit just .235 with one homer for Pawtucket last year. He's only 22 and his defense is his calling card, but if he can't hit a little, he'll never get to play it.

Leonys Martin - Signed a 5-year, $15.5 million contract with the Rangers before last season, and hit a combined .295/.362/.421 at three minor league levels last year. That's buttressed largely by the .348 he hit in 29 games at Frisco in the AA Texas League, where .300 batting averages practically fall out of the sky like manna. (Someone named Wes Timmons hit .365 there last year, while non-prospects such as Drew Locke, Jordan Parraz and Paul McAnulty have hit .330 or better there in the last several years.) Viciedo has potential to be a useful major leaguer for a few years, like Ordonez was.  Like Iglesias, Martin will need to hit in the majors if he wants to stick around. He'll be 24 in March, so he's got time to make good on that contract, but clearly still needs to prove himself at AAA (where he hit .263 with no homers in almost 200 plate appearances).

So there you have them: all of the position players born in Cuba in the last five decades who ever saw any MLB service time. The list is not encouraging. The numbers are better for the drafted players, because of course the teams signing them have better information on them before doing so and hence we would expect more of them to pan out, or they wouldn't have been drafted.

But the free agents are almost all busts, or marginal major leaguers at best. Viciedo has the potential to be a useful major league for a few years, maybe even have a few really good seasons in the middle of a 10-year career, but the rest look like organizational soldiers or guys with one skill (power, defense) but no others, and hence not MLB material.

It's worth noting that Cuban pitchers have fared better than this, with the likes of Livan Hernandez, Orlando Hernandez, Danys Baez, Jose Contreras, Rolando Arrojo, and now Aroldis Chapman. Even Ariel Prieto had 3.0 WAR for his disappointing career and Vladimir Nunez pitched for almost a decade in the majors, albeit rarely all that well.

The reason for this, I think, is obvious: You can tell right away whether a pitching prospect can throw hard and straight, which is most of what pitching entails. Determining whether a prospect will be able to hit such pitches - not to mention curves and sliders and change ups and the like - is a much more complex and drawn out task.

And as for Cespedes, well, don't be surprised if he takes a little while to get acclimated and even longer to become the star people seem to think he'll be.

Or if he never does.

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