Challenges await Cespedes in big leagues
Unlike other Cubans in Majors, outfielder is without peers
The real secret about Yoenis Cespedes is that he really is not a big secret at all.
A fixture on the international baseball scene for almost a decade, Cespedes' name has been scribbled in the notepads of big league scouts for several years. The only surprise regarding the Athletics' new outfielder came when he chose to defect from Cuba and begin the path toward the Major Leagues last winter.
Back in Cuba, Cespedes' exploits on the field were best described in five equal parts: Hits for average, hits for power, baserunning, throwing and fielding.
They still are.
But as is the case with all players who defect from Cuba, there exists an element of mystery in Cespedes' story.
Did Cespedes leave Cuba at night or was it an afternoon escape? What's it like to leave your parents, your siblings and everything you have known to pursue a big league dream in a country you barely know? Faced with the same situation, would you do the same?
Could you do the same?
And, by the way, what took so long to get him signed?
In some ways, Cespedes will face many of the same questions and challenges that other Cubans have faced when they made their way to the Major Leagues. He'll face hardships on and off the field that many Americans may never understand. Cespedes could struggle with the language, and it might take some time for him to get used to the customs that come with being a professional athlete in the United States.
Cespedes could also get homesick.
And the food. Oh, the food will never taste as good as it did on Cespedes' beloved island. It might not even taste as good as the food he enjoyed in the Dominican Republic, where he currently lives.
But in some ways, Cespedes is without peers. He's alone because his age, his talent level and the position he plays separates him from the Cuban players who have come before him.
There has never been an outfielder like Cespedes who has left Cuba's national team and joined the Major Leagues in the prime of his career. Sure, he's a risk. But it's a gamble -- a four-year, $36 million bet -- Oakland is willing to take and Cespedes is ready to make good on it.
"Believe me, I'm going to give the best I have and I'm going to leave it all on the field," Cespedes told MLB.com. "I'll do my best and show I deserve this opportunity. I know I can do it. I'm ready."
But isn't there always a risk when dealing with Cuban players? The Reds took a chance with Aroldis Chapman in 2010, signing the pitcher to a $30.25 million deal. So far, it has paid off. Chapman, who signed at age 21, is 6-3 with a 3.27 ERA in 69 games. He has struck out 90 big league hitters, but he has also pitched 108 innings in the Minors, including 101 1/3 at Triple-A.
It's too early to tell how the other moves will pan out.
Three months after Chapman, Toronto gambled on infielder Adeiny Hechavarria, also 21 at the time, signing him to a four-year, $10 million deal. He's hit .255 with 12 home runs and 98 RBIs in 238 Minor League games. But he sported a .389 batting average in 25 games at Triple-A Las Vegas at the end of last season and could make his big league debut this year.
Before the start of the 2009 season, infielder Dayan Viciedo signed a four-year, $10 million deal with the White Sox at age 20, and shortstop Jose Iglesias signed a four-year, $8.25 million contract with Boston near the end of that season at age 19. Viciedo continues to make adjustments, while Iglesias could see plenty of playing time for the Red Sox in 2012 after spending the past two seasons in the Minors.
Last May, the Rangers signed outfielder Leonys Martin to a five-year, $15.5 million deal at age 23. He spent the season in the Minors and will compete for a big league job in center field in Spring Training.
Martin could be headed back to the Minors, but that would surprise no one. Almost seven years ago, first baseman Kendrys Morales signed with the Angels at 22. He needed four years of seasoning in the Minors.
White Sox infielder Alexei Ramirez, who signed a four-year deal in 2007, when he was 26, and was immediately thrust into the starting lineup, is the closest comparison to Cespedes in terms of age and skill level, but Ramirez never faced the type of scrutiny that Cespedes is likely to see.
Today's Cuban players are young and known as much for their defense as they are for their prowess at the plate.
That wasn't always the case.
In 1991, right-handed pitcher Rene Arocha, then 27, became the first player to defect from Cuba's national team. He later signed with the Cardinals. Brothers Livan and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez followed their big league dreams in 1995. El Duque was 32 when he made his big league debut with the Yankees in 1998, and Livan was 21 the first time he took the hill for the Marlins in '96.
Phillies right-hander Jose Contreras, arguably the most famous Cuban pitcher of all-time, defected in 2002 and was 31 when he made his debut with the Yankees the next year.
Cespedes will be 27 in October.
"My first goal is to make the team and stay healthy all season, and little by little, I'll make more goals," Cespedes said. "I've been preparing every day for this, and I 100-percent believe that I am ready for the Major Leagues. I have a lot of international experience and experience at a high level. I'm very confident in my abilities."
But can Cespedes hit big league pitching? Specifically, can he handle the pitching in the American League West? How will Cespedes do against some combination of Jered Weaver, Ervin Santana, C.J. Wilson and Dan Haren back-to-back-to-back in Anaheim? The Rangers have Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and a bevy of power arms in the bullpen. And don't forget about Felix Hernandez in Seattle.
And have you seen the amount of foul territory in Oakland?
Don't be fooled by Cespedes' Spring Training statistics. The A's train in Phoenix, and the balls fly out of the ballparks in Arizona. There are many who believe Cespedes will show the type of hitter he really is by June 1. Others say you'll know if he can handle big league pitching by May 15.
What is certain is that he will need a support group in Oakland. He'll need a mentor, somebody who knows the highs and lows that come with Major League Baseball and is well-versed in the art of hitting in the big leagues. Manny Ramirez, anyone?
Also still to be determined is if taking the best deal on the market was really the best decision for Cespedes.
What's known is that the A's believe he is worth the risk and that Major League Baseball has never seen a player like Cespedes leave Cuba in recent years. But that's not a secret, either.