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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Oakland A's Signing of Cespedes is Full of Questions and Upside

One of the final big names of free agency landed today with the Oakland A’s coming to a somewhat surprising agreement with Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes. The slugging outfielder inked a deal reported to be for $36 million over four years. Having been connected at one time or another this winter to over half the teams in the majors, Cespedes was never linked to Oakland, making today’s news all the more surprising. While in the grand scheme of contracts, there is nothing out of line with this deal, the signing is rife with questions and unknowns.

The type of gamble that Oakland has taken with Cespedes is one more befitting a team closer to competing and with more financial resources. Even with Cespedes, the A’s project to have one of the worst records in the American League in 2012, and are in full rebuilding mode. GM Billy Beane acquired a raft of prospects during this off-season by trading established players like Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey. While he received some exciting young talent, they are all players lacking big league experience and likely needing a little more minor league seasoning before they can be expected to contribute to the A’s in any meaningful way. There is still quite a great deal of time and patience required of the A’s before they will know exactly what they have.

Cespedes brings a lot of upside, but also a lot of unknowns. He is listed as being 26 years old, but given the creativity with the ages of previous Cuban major league players, there is no telling if that is an accurate figure. He displays impressive power, above average speed, and an arm that will play at any of the outfield positions, but how he will adapt to playing in the major leagues is a complete mystery. The competition he has played against in Cuba and abroad is certainly not an equal comparison, but the A’s hope that his impressive athleticism and skills he displayed in workouts translates into a player worthy of the contract they just proffered.

The biggest issue I have with the signing is that it is a near certainty that the A’s will not be close to competing for at least the next two years- and perhaps longer. Being a small market team, their fortunes are hitched to a wagon being drawn by players who have little or no major league experience. The way they develop, or don’t, will largely determine the extended future of the team.  The money given to Cespedes would have gone a long way towards investing further in the draft or buying back arbitration years from young players who develop into long-term keepers. At least the A’s had the forethought to backload the contract, giving Cespedes $6.5 million and $8.5 million in the first two years of the deal, and $10.5 in each of the final two years. Even if he only becomes an average player, having such a deal makes him eminently tradable.

Signing a player like Cespedes at this stage of their franchise development is a luxury move by Oakland. He could well turn into a star, but by the time the A’s are ready to compete his deal could be running out. There is also the possibility that he does not pan out as expected, which would turn out to be an expensive blunder for a franchise that can ill afford such things. The probability is greatest that he won’t be in Oakland for any longer than the length of his current contract. If he plays to or above expectations he will price himself out of Oakland’s range (he will not be arbitration eligible), and if he bombs they won’t want him back anyways.

The A’s won’t necessarily recoup money from the signing through marketing Cespedes. Unlike international free agents like Yu Darvish, who has an entire national fan base and media entourage built in, Cespedes is unknown to all but the most diehard baseball fans. His popularity will be determined by his production and his personality, all having to be built from the ground up.

One has to wonder if a little bit of Beane’s ego played into the Cespedes signing. The success of the movie Moneyball made his lack of playoff success in Oakland all the more glaring, and the way he sold off so many of the team’s established players this off-season did nothing to endear him to fans. Signing Cespedes was the most cost effective way of him making a splash in free agency with the best probability of getting bang for Oakland’s buck. It has also bought him a little time to see what he has with all the young players he has imported.

The signing of Cespedes is one of the most confounding of the free agency period. It could be a great deal just as much as it could be a total stinker. The A’s got their man on a contract that is very reasonable given the current market, but are laying out money that their team can ill afford to gamble with. It will be intriguing to see how it plays out. If all goes well another victory will be chalked up to the wisdom of the moneyball philosophy, and if Cespedes doesn’t pan out the A’s could prolong their rebuilding process into the foreseeable future.


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