02/13/12 2:59 PM EST
A's continue noisy winter for AL West
Deal for Cuban outfielder Cespedes latest big move in division
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
All four teams in the sport's smallest division are thinking big and, moving under the cover of darkness, making bold strikes when it is least expected.
It all began with the Angels' swooping in on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson for their historic dual signing at the Winter Meetings, bringing the Yu Darvish reaction from the two-time AL champion Rangers. Then the offense-starved Mariners made headlines by lifting super prospect Jesus Montero from the Yankees at the cost of Michael Pineda.
The Oakland A's, seemingly on the outside looking in, are the latest to pounce in reportedly landing highly coveted Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes with a four-year deal in the $36 million range. The club has not commented on or confirmed the agreement.
This is a pricey neighborhood for the A's, who had been cutting payroll left (Gio Gonzalez) and right (Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey) this winter with moves clearly designed to arm the organization for the future and a potential move to San Jose.
Cespedes, who has an impressive track record in Cuba, calls to mind a young Cesar Cedeno with his multiple physical gifts and explosive bat. He was romanced by a number of franchises after being granted free agency by MLB on Jan. 25.
Arriving Tuesday in Miami and touring the Marlins' new ballpark, Cespedes appeared to be a natural for the newly designed outfit.
The Marlins, given their ambitious winter, were considered runaway favorites to reel in Cespedes as an enticing attraction for the local Cuban population. The reconfigured franchise has installed entertaining Ozzie Guillen in the managerial role and spent lavishly on free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell while also acquiring Carlos Zambrano for its rotation.
The Orioles, White Sox, Cubs, Tigers and Indians all were linked to Cespedes with varying degrees of interest, along with the Marlins and A's.
The A's, who had seemed more focused on divesting than investing, weren't viewed by insiders as serious contenders for Cespedes before making their stunningly successful leap into the fray.
A club in search of an identity might have just found it, giving discouraged fans reason to make the trek to the Coliseum and take delight, hopefully, in the development of a five-tool talent with enormous upside.
Cespedes is the clear exception in the long-term master plan of general manager Billy Beane -- and what an exception he could turn out to be if he lives up to advanced billing and expectations.
The Athletics in previous seasons had made unsuccessful efforts to sign Cuban defectors Alexei Ramirez (White Sox) and Aroldis Chapman (Reds). But they showed Cespedes the love -- and money -- and now have him ticketed for their East Bay outfield.
At 26, Cespedes is no Bryce Harper or Mike Trout, in need of another year of seasoning. This guy looks ready to go. Certainly he has the sturdy frame to endure and the physical gifts to bring fans out of their seats.
Cespedes batted .333 with 33 homers and 99 RBIs in 90 games in his last season in Cuba but struggled in the Dominican Winter League, always a tough proving ground.
Cespedes, like former Cuban slugger Kendrys Morales of the Angels, took up residence in the Dominican Republic in order to gain MLB free agency.
After he gained legal clearance by the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, Cespedes was open to offers. The A's made their move, hoping that their new import can bring the brand of impact Morales produced for the Angels before his home-plate celebratory leap on May 29, 2010, halted his drive toward stardom.
Morales -- about to launch a comeback bid from the lower left leg fracture that forced him to miss all of 2011 with a second surgery -- is not really an ideal model in assessing and projecting Cespedes' development.
Morales was 21 when he signed a six-year deal with the Angels in 2004 after his 13th attempt to reach Florida's shores on a boat finally was successful. Morales is a powerful and accomplished hitter, but he is not as gifted athletically as the swift Cespedes.
Needing one full season in the Minor Leagues and parts of three others, Morales finally emerged as a major force for the Angels in '09 after Mark Teixeira elected to sign with the Yankees, clearing a space at first base.
Morales turned 26 -- Cespedes' current age -- during that breakout season that featured a .306 batting average and .569 slugging percentage, with 34 homers and 108 RBIs. He finished fifth in the AL Most Valuable Player Award balloting.
Cespedes will not be given a job this spring. There will be considerable competition in a deep Oakland outfield.
Veteran Coco Crisp is back in center field, with Seth Smith, Josh Reddick, Jonny Gomes and Michael Taylor gunning for corner spots along with Cespedes. Another newcomer, Collin Cowgill, also will bid for playing time.
With Cespedes now in the mix, Oakland will have potential trade options pending how quickly the new man in town takes flight.
The AL West, once seen as the least colorful and interesting of the six divisions, just keeps getting brighter -- and more fascinating -- by the day.
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.