The viral internet sensation with more core strength than anyone I personally know has inked a contract with the Oakland A's. Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes joins a trio of outfielders acquired via trades (Colin Cowgill, Seth Smith, and Josh Reddick), one added through free agency (Jonny Gomes) and one re-signed by the club (Coco Crisp). When factoring in that the club has converted shortstop to center fielder Grant Green playing in Triple-A, Michael Taylor flanking him in a corner outfield position at Sacramento, and top prospect Michael Choice in Double-A and coming off a monster Arizona Fall League performance, and I'm left scratching my head. Regardless, as a wise man once said, it is what it is.
With that in mind, let's look at what it is. Cespedes joins a suddenly crowded outfield. Some view him as capable of patrolling center field thanks to his above average speed. Others think he's better suited for a corner, where his plus arm would play. Crisp is the incumbent center fielder. How did he play in the field in 2011? Crisp had a negative 5.5 fielding score per FanGraphs in 2011, but I must caution that looking at one year's worth of data can be misleading. Going back to the previous two years, 2009 and 2010, his fielding scores were 4.8 and 7.3 respectively. I'm of the opinion he's still a valuable asset defensively in center field, and his bat doesn't play well in a corner value wise, so look for him to be penciled in as the starting center fielder (MLB.com suggest Crisp will move to a corner, so time will tell). That leaves Smith, Reddick, Gomes, and Cespedes vying for playing time in the corner outfield positions, and probably some at designated hitter, unless Chris Carter claims that job for himself. Smith has a gigantic platoon split with a .202/.272/.304 career line against southpaws versus a .290/.364/.518 career line against righies. Safe to say he'll be shielded from left-handed pitching if the team knows what's good for them. Conversely, Gomes annihilates left-handed pitching hitting .281/.375/.501 in 904 career plate appearances. Seems like an obvious platoon tandem to me. Reddick has fared well enough against same handed pitching (which is left-handed) in his limited major league time, and throughout his minor league career, that I'd expect him to play everyday.
What does this mean for the 4 year $36 million man? Well, the team didn't sign him to a lucrative contract to watch his rear end collect splinters. He'll be an everyday outfielder. I'm just not 100 percent convinced that will be by Opening Day. He was rusty in the Dominican Winter League after a long layoff, and it showed with his 5-for-35 line that was accompanied with 10 strikeouts, zero walks, and only one home run. If spring training isn't enough to get him rolling, taking hacks in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League should be just what the doctor ordered. It's also important not to lose sight of the major cultural change he'll be going through, and doing so outside of the limelight, to a certain extent at least, wouldn't necessarily hurt.
So what are the A's paying for? A 26 year old with loud tools. He runs well, and has crazy raw power. Power he put on display hitting 33 home runs in just 354 at-bats his final year playing in Cuba (2010-2011). Context is everything though, and we are lucky enough to have MLEs for his play. Courtesy Brian Cartwright's Oliver system, which is used by The Hardball Times Forecasts, we know his .333/.424/.667 line with 33 home runs and 11 stolen bases in Cuba would look more like .267/.311/.474 with 21 home runs and 16 stolen bases in MLB. Those that like to better understand how the sausage is made, or in this case, how the MLEs are figured, should take a glance at Cartwright's explanation of Oliver. I'd also encourage readers to look at his piece about the projection of Yu Darvish to better understand projecting from foreign league performances. Speaking of projections, Oliver doesn't just calculate MLEs for past play, it also generates projections for future play. Oliver expects Cespedes will receive 461 plate appearances, hit 18 home runs, steal 12 bases, and slash .266/.308/.447. His volume of plate appearances will change now that he is a member of the A's, and his playing time can be projected in the team's depth chart. That will obviously have an impact on his counting stats.
Stepping away from the projection and numbers side of things, and returning to the scouting side of the ledger, Cespedes most questionable tool is his hit tool. Even the most bullish of Cespedes's stock holders only throw a future average grade on it. Most expect it to be slightly below average and compensated for with plus to plus-plus power. Part of what generates Cespedes's in game power is what also limits his future batting average ceiling, a lengthy swing. Few power hitters have short compact swings, and Cespedes isn't an exception to the rule. However, he doesn't need to be in order to be valuable in reality or fantasy. The Oakland Coliseum won't do his power any favors, but as a right-handed batter, he won't feel nearly the same soul crushing park effect left-handed batters do according to Bill James ballpark index. His power will play in any ballpark, just don't expect as many cheapies as he'd get playing in a bandbox. With 500 plus at-bats it wouldn't surprise me if he popped 25 home runs. I would be equally unsurprised if he had struggles in year one with the monumental leap in talent level that comes from playing in Cuba to playing in MLB. Be careful of paying the hype sticker price in yearly re-draft leagues, but invest more frivolously in long term keeper and dynasty formats.