Why Yoenis Cespedes' Success Is a Sign More Cuban Stars Can Flourish in MLB

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Why Yoenis Cespedes' Success Is a Sign More Cuban Stars Can Flourish in MLB
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The Oakland A's were going out on a limb when they decided to sign Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year contract worth $36 million back in February. They were banking on Cespedes' raw talent, hoping that his inexperience wouldn't keep him from establishing himself as a star in the major leagues.

If it did, the A's were going to be in trouble. Some teams can swallow a $36 million contract like it's no big deal. The A's aren't one of those teams.

Fortunately for the A's, it looks like they haven't bought a bust with their $36 million. It looks like they've bought a steal.

Cespedes is more than living up to the hype in his first season in Major League Baseball. Through 78 games, he boasts a triple-slash line of .307/.367/.517 with 14 home runs and 56 RBI. Per Baseball-Reference.com, that equates to a 162-game average of 29 homers and 116 RBI. 

Cespedes won't get to those numbers by the end of this season, in part because he's developed a tendency to come down with nagging injuries. Even despite his problem with injuries, though, his $6.5 million salary this season looks like a bargain.

So now we know. Baseball stars who defect from Cuba can indeed flourish in Major League Baseball. 

This isn't exactly news, of course. Livan Hernandez established himself as a successful major league pitcher after he defected from Cuba in the mid-1990s, and is still hanging around in the big leagues today.

Orlando Hernandez didn't enjoy a long major league career after he defected in the late '90s, but he had a brilliant debut season in 1998 with the Yankees and went on to win 17 games in 1999. Jose Contreras never lived up to the hype after he defected and signed with the Yankees in 2002, but he too went on to have several solid seasons.

Al Bello/Getty Images
Morales finished fifth in the AL MVP voting in 2009.

More recently, we've seen hitters like Alexei Ramirez and Kendrys Morales establish themselves as productive major league players. According to FanGraphs, only eight shortstops have accumulated a higher WAR than Ramirez since 2008. Morales hit 34 homers and drove in over 100 runs in 2009, and has been a moderately productive hitter this season after missing almost two full years recovering from an injury he suffered early in May of 2010.

And yes, we could also talk about Aroldis Chapman being the most dominant reliever in baseball today just a couple years after he defected and joined the Cincinnati Reds in 2010. Though as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter where you're from when you can throw as hard as 105 miles per hour with a wicked slider.

So even before the A's went out and inked Cespedes to the biggest contract ever given to a Cuban defector, the signs were there that players who defect from Cuba and sign on with major league teams are perfectly capable of enjoying successful big league careers. What Cespedes is doing is not unprecedented.

There were some who saw this coming. There was no shortage of scouts who raved about Cespedes' tools, and his notorious showcase video that found its way onto YouTube put those tools on display for the viewing pleasure of the general public.

Over a span of a few months, Cespedes developed a sort of cult following consisting of scouts, experts and fans who viewed him as a sort of baseball Terminator: a perfect machine.

Yet there was also skepticism. A lot of it, in fact. For all the awe there was regarding Cespedes, there was also doubt.

The doubt was over his ability to translate his tremendous talent into numbers worthy of a multi-million dollar major league contract. That was to be a matter of him hitting major league pitching, which is apparently far superior to the pitching seen in the Cuban National Series.

Take this passage from Keith Law's scouting report (ESPN Insider required), for example:

Cespedes hasn't faced a lot of good pitching and has faced very little pitching of any sort since defecting, so he'll probably be best served spending a few weeks or even months in the upper minors to shake off the rust and get used to facing better-quality off-speed stuff. The pull-happy approach leaves him very vulnerable on the outer half, and that kind of effort makes it hard to stay on the ball unless you've got superb hand-eye coordination. He also showed in his brief stint in the Dominican Winter League that he struggled to pick up spin out of the pitcher's hand, so adjusting to breaking balls probably will be the biggest obstacle between him and major league impact.

Baseball America's scouting report of Cespedes (need a subscription for that too) cited scouts with similar concerns, and it also contained talk of Cespedes' swing being too long and too loopy at times.

Initially, it looked like these concerns were indeed going to play out on the field. In his first 33 major league at-bats, Cespedes struck out 15 times. That's one strikeout for every 2.2 at-bats.

Since then, however, Cespedes has struck out 51 times in 257 at-bats. That's one strikeout once every five at-bats. Shockingly, he has made adjustments.

Overall, Cespedes bears a strikeout rate of 20.7 percent, according to FanGraphs. That's not great, but it's not awful either. He's striking out less frequently than stars like Josh Hamilton, Curtis Granderson, Austin Jackson and Mark Trumbo.

A good comp for Cespedes in this case is Mike Trout, who is playing his first full season in the big leagues after parts of four seasons (2009-2012) in the minors and a brief cameo in the majors in 2011. His strikeout rate this season is 20.7 percent, same as Cespedes.

Maybe the influence the minor leagues have on the development of young players is overrated.

It's either that, or Cespedes accumulated more hitting know-how during his years of pro ball and international competition than scouts gave him credit for. Combine that with his freakish natural talent, and you get a star ballplayer.

This is not to say that all the scouts who doubted Cespedes deserve a wag of one's finger, nor do I want to go so far as to suggest that the skepticism regarding Cespedes came about due to unfair prejudices (and I'll leave it at that).

Scouts and experts may have voiced doubts about how seasoned Cespedes was as a hitter, but nobody ever flat-out said that he was going to be a bust. The general consensus was that he had star potential, but that it was going to take time for him to develop into a star. There's nothing sinister about a perception like that.

Jeff Bottari/Getty Images
Cespedes took part in the World Baseball Classic in 2009. There's some pretty good pitching in the WBC, at last check.

If Cespedes has taught people a lesson with his success this season, it's that major league players aren't necessarily in a league of their own. Other professional leagues around the globe can't match MLB's collective talent, but Cespedes' brief career and the careers of fellow Cuban defectors go to show that countries that have been playing baseball long enough are perfectly capable of producing individual players with elite talent.

We can therefore add Cuba to the list of noteworthy international baseball breeding grounds, which already includes countries like Japan and virtually all of the countries in South America outside of Cuba. 

Not that any of us should get too carried away dreaming of a steady stream of talent coming from Cuba to the major leagues. That's just not possible and, realistically, people in and around MLB are probably going to remain on the fence about Cuba for the foreseeable future.

And for good reason, mind you.

It's not easy for MLB teams to scout Cuban players, and it can be hard to justify the scouting itself seeing as how Cuban players are out of reach until they defect. Clubs can salivate over Cuban players all they want, but they can't actually start taking their scouting seriously until they know for sure that a given Cuban player is fair game.

There's not going to be a sudden massive influx of Cuban players in the big leagues, nor can Major League Baseball force that to happen.

But now that Cespedes has made it as a big league star so soon after fleeing from Cuba, you can rest assured that clubs are going to start being a little more generous with their millions when it comes to Cuban players with elite talent.

In fact, they already are. The Cubs signed Cuban outfield prospect Jorge Soler to a deal worth $30 million in June. A couple weeks later, the Dodgers signed Yasiel Puig, a less-heralded prospect relative to Soler, to a contract worth $42 million. His contract surpasses that of Cespedes for the largest ever given to a Cuban defector.

Whether Soler and Puig live up to these contracts remains to be seen. But for now, it's clear that Cespedes is already blazing a trail.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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