by Peter C. Bjarkman
November 9, 2011
A little less than two years ago (during Spring 2010) I wrote extensively about the not-so-lofty prospects of Aroldis Chapman as a potential big league strikeout king. My commentary both on this site and on other web pages came on the heels of Chapman’s $30-million contract with the loose-spending Cincinnati Reds and in the shadows of all the hype (especially on MLB.com and in the Cincinnati area media) surrounding the much-heralded signing of the latest sensational Cuban League defector.
My aim at the time was to give the lie to all the inflated reports about Chapman being “the greatest Cuban League hurler ever” and a can’t-miss big league phenomenon. After all, I had seen a lot of Chapman in Cuba and his half-dozen seasons there had indeed been promising, but quite a bit short of brilliant. My commentary of course inspired a near fire-storm of attacks on my own credibility and unleashed numerous complaints that I was “merely a shill for the Cuban press” and that I attacked players like Chapman or Kendry Morales simply because they chose to abandon the Cuban socialist baseball system. But after two full season’s Chapman big league resume has indeed so far resembled far more closely the one I had projected than anything fantasized by the mainstream media outlets.
Today the same hyper-interest once again swirls around Yoenis Céspedes (see note at the end of this article) – last year’s Cuban League home run pacesetter and RBI champion and recent island “escapee” who now sits in the Dominican Republic poised to become the latest Cuban MLB headliner. I have received multiple inquiries in recent days from friends in the baseball media and scouting fraternity soliciting my observations and insights on Yoenis Céspedes as a potential big leaguer. Apparently not everyone is so quick to dismiss my evaluations of these Cuban League stars and national team players whom I have seen perform far more frequently than most fans and officials from the MLB community. Since I am not employed by (nor have any special rooting interest in) any particular MLB club – and since the media requests have exceeded a mere handful – I thought it would be both fairer and more economical to record my impressions here on this website, rather that pen a couple dozen individual responses. Thus anyone is free to quote me as they wish, make whatever uses they care to of my insights, and even again attack my credibility if that is their preference. I only offer a reminder here of my earlier Chapman dialogue and its inevitable fallout as a kind of “buyer beware” caveat for all those in the audience who can never quite separate their own personal political agendas from any objective discussions of talented Cuban baseball players.
In the spirit of full disclosure, let me first admit openly here that I have not only been present on the Cuban baseball scene for over a decade and a half, but also that I have developed rather close relationships with many of the top national team stars. I have witnessed the great bulk of Cuban national team outings at international events during the decade of the 2000s. Yoenis Céspedes did not happen to be one of the several dozen players I have spent the most time with both in Europe and the Caribbean; nonetheless I have talked with him on a number of occasions, have attended more than a dozen Granma contests in National Series action, and have also seen up close and in person most of his senior national team games since 2009. One downside of my tight connections with Cuban ballplayers is that this always opens the door to questions about my true objectivity in evaluating their talent levels. But one clear upside is the inarguable fact that I know a lot more about the personalities and individual makeup of these athletes as than do most MLB scouting operatives. So with all that said, let us proceed directly to Céspedes and his impressive collection of ball-playing skills.
If there is any negative attached to Yoenis Céspedes it is likely to be the usual issue of age – perhaps a larger consideration with position players like Alexei Ramírez or Leonys Martin or Yasser Gómez than with pitchers like Chapman, José Contreras or El Duque Hernández. The batter’s adjustment to big-league-level pitching takes time and demands a period of seasoning in the professional minor leagues. Céspedes is the veteran of eight full Cuban league seasons and has just passed his twenty-sixth birthday (he was born August 18, 1985); he will need to make a rapid shift to the professional game if he is going to have a very long big league career. Kendry Morales admittedly needed considerable time to make this adjustment but was fortunate (from an adjustment standpoint) to leave Cuba far earlier (after only three seasons); Leonys Martin has recently enjoyed only the briefest taste of the big league scene with Texas, but Martin is nearly two years younger than his Granma counterpart. And then there is always the issue of how much patience a big league organization will have with any athlete on whom they have just squandered millions of dollars in bonus money.
There is nonetheless a huge upside to Céspedes. Unlike Martin – who was awarded the kind of bonus deal usually proffered to an everyday outfielder, yet by most measures seems more cut out to be a part-time defensive specialist – Céspedes is a legitimate five-tool prospect. Boasting tremendous power, great speed, a quick bat, considerable outfield range, and a powerful throwing arm, he is unquestionably a legitimate big league prospect and easily one of the best athletes to come out of Cuba since Kendry Morales and Alexei Ramírez. Perhaps only Granma teammate Alfredo Despaigne (current national team clean-up hitter and a year younger) boasts a more impressive body than does Céspedes. But despite the impressive physique, wealth of tools and impressive statistical resume, the recent Cuban home run king is not quite in the same offensive league with Despaigne, Frederich Cepeda, José Dariel Abreu or Yulieski Gourriel. He is not as explosive at the plate as Despaigne or Abreu, is nowhere near the disciplined and savvy hitter that Cepeda is (from both sides of the plate), and is not as likely to come up big under the most pressure-packed situations like Gourriel (or even like recent national squad teammates Alexei Bell and newcomer Rusney Castillo). After leading the recent home run and RBI parade in National Series #50, Céspedes largely disappeared during the recent postseason, where is was teammate Despaigne who provided all the Granma slugging firepower.
There are also more than a few caveats to be attached to the Céspedes-produced Cuban League numbers. While he shared a new league home run mark with Cienfuegos slugger Abreu this past spring – and also outdistanced teammate Despaigne by six in the long-ball department – it has to be emphasized that Despaigne missed the entire first third of the season while accompanying a Cuban delegation to the World Youth Congress in South Africa. And Abreu lost nearly as much time to injury during the same campaign. Céspedes logged 142 more official at-bats in 2010-11 than did Despaigne, and 93 more than Abreu (who trailed in the RBI race by merely one). With the same number of plate appearances Despaigne would have easily registered more that 40 round-trippers. All this is to say that Céspedes’ two slugging crowns this past season were something of an aberration (as was the home run crown earned by Alexei Ramírez during his own final National Series campaign back in 2007, a year when a mere 20 dingers took the top prize). And while the recent defector’s 2011 .333 batting average is impressive enough by big league standards, it was earned in a league where .300 hitting is an mere afterthought and where his robust ranking stood only number 32 in the entire circuit.
And Céspedes also enjoyed a handful of other notable advantages back home in Cuba that contributed rather mightily to inflating his raw numbers. One was playing nearly half his games in a bandbox-dimension Bayamo home ballpark reputed as a slugger’s paradise. Another was hitting in the third slot of a potent Granma lineup where he was followed by not only Despaigne (home run king the previous two seasons) but also by Yordanis Samón (21 HRs, 76 RBIs, and a league fourth-best.385 BA). In short Céspedes saw a ton of mostly hittable pitches over the past several seasons, and in a league acknowledged for its recent precipitous dip in pitching talent.
Perhaps a truer measure of future pro-level potential is always the international tournaments and here the performance has been anything but subpar. Céspedes peaked at the second MLB World Baseball Classic, and against arguably the best opposition ever faced by Team Cuba (and in the only major tournament in more than a half-century where the Cubans didn’t reach the final round). The Granma slugger was the team’s second best hitter (.458) behind Cepeda and joined Cepeda among the tournament all-star nominations despite Cuba’s second-round elimination. At the same time, however, he did commit a center field error (a dropped fly ball in a vital opening second round game with Japan) that handed his club its most costly loss in decades.
But the overall international performance has not been on the whole quite so eye-catching. Like Joan Carlos Pedroso (the first Cuban Leaguer to amass 200-plus homers in the post-1999 wood-bat era , but a repeated offensive failure in his national team trials), Céspedes has not quite met expectations against better pitching and under the pressures of international play. He failed to make the team for the Beijing Olympics (the outfield consisted of Cepeda, Despaigne, Bell and Yoandry Urgélles). At the 2009 World Cup in Europe the following fall his .171 batting mark was the worst of any Cuban starter. He did check in with a misleading .333 batting average during his final international event at the 2010 Intercontinental Cup in Taiwan, but that number represented only the eleventh-best overall average on his own offense-minded gold-medal-winning Cuban club. Only a month earlier, however, Céspedes did register a pair of clutch extra-base knocks to highlight a crucial victory over Canada at the Pre-Mundial (World Cup Qualifier) in Puerto Rico. At the Summer 2010 World University Games, Céspedes opened with an awesome slugging display in early games against weak foes like China and Sri Lanka, then faded against the better pitching offered by Korea and the Americans (where Despaigne again took over the Cuban offensive show),
The biggest negatives seem to be the intangibles connected with off-the-field issues. It is known (although with few tangible details) that Yoenis first temporarily abandoned the Cuban pre-selection team last July in Havana, then after a sudden change of heart was involved in a tragic fatal automobile accident while in route back to training camp. His dispute with team officials is rumored to have resulted from personal dissatisfaction over having been assigned to the pre-selection club heading for the ALBA Games in Caracas, rather than the teams ticketed for the World Port Tournament in Haarlem or the World Baseball Challenge in British Colombia. Many rumors (most of them likely unfounded) now surround the car wreck in which Céspedes was apparently driving, an injured pedestrian subsequently died, and a formal inquiry was never successfully completed by Cuban authorities. One story has the victim testifying before his death that the ballplayer was not actually at fault, another version has Cuban authorities searching the countryside for the missing ballplayer during the resulting criminal investigation. All that is clear is that Céspedes indeed fled Cuba before the matter was ever resolved or the details were ever made public.
One can not help but recall here the case of Bárbaro Garbey, former Cuban League star in the late 1970s. Garbey was implicated in the same hushed-up game-fixing scandal on the island that lead to the suspension of a handful of capital city ballplayers including future Industriales and national team manager Rey Anglada. After Garbey reached the USA during the 1980 Mariel boatlift (reportedly as one of the many prisoners dispatched from Cuban jails) he was welcomed with open arms by North American professional baseball and enjoyed a brief if controversy-marred big league sojourn (mainly with the Detroit Tigers). Despite the nearly century-long sanctimonious stand by major league owners and various commissioners against even the slightest hint of gambling or game-fixing (note here the case of Pete Rose), Garbey’s apparent sins back in Cuba were all-too-easily dismissed as merely an admirable blow struck against the corrupt (i.e. socialist) Cuban baseball system. The question will now be raised in some quarters at least about any welcoming of Céspedes without at least some inquiries into his current status within with the Cuban civil legal system.
Please understand that I am certainly not drawing any direct parallels here between Céspedes and Garbey, and I am most assuredly not accusing Céspedes of any misbehavior or character flaws in connection with the mysterious events of last summer. I of course do not know what actually happened that might have lead to Yoenis Céspedes’ personal decision to flee from Cuba. Few others apparently know any more than I do. Did he depart the island to follow his baseball dream, pure and simple? Was he fleeing imminent criminal charges or some sort of legal morass? Was his baseball future already ended on the island, leaving no option but seeking to play elsewhere? We simply have no answers and that is especially unfortunate when a multi-million-dollar contract and the moral integrity of major league baseball might be squarely on the line. But let us assume for the moment that Yoenis Céspedes was in no way at fault for any misdeeds in his homeland. I am only suggesting here that the future of this potential new Cuban big leaguer will likely fare far better (especially in the heated spotlight of a MLB media circus) if certain unanswered questions are now directly addressed and clarified by his current handlers – sooner rather than later. Let’s set the record straight on what happened in Havana last July and then devote full attention to the more enjoyable issues of raw baseball talent.
Perhaps the best comparison between Céspedes and other recent Cuban prospects (“defectors”) would be one that linked him with 2003 Cuban League rookie-of-the-year and later California Angels slugger Kendry Morales. Morales also faced “character issues” (a questionable work ethic and several disciplinary suspensions from both the Cuban national team and his Industriales league team) and yet overcame them with flying colors. Morales obviously owned a “plus-side” advantage over Céspedes given that he is a switch hitter with remarkable power from both sides of the plate. On the other hand Céspedes is a far better fielder and thus a much more complete ballplayer. He features all the outfield speed and range owned by Leonys Martin and a better arm to boot. Both his glove and his speed give him a leg up on the young Kendry Morales (with no pun intended here, especially given the leg injury that has now kept Morales on the sidelines for two full seasons). Will he make the same needed adjustments that Kendry made to big league hurling and the whirlwind big league lifestyle – and make them even more rapidly, as demanded by his somewhat later start in the process? That remains the intriguing $64,000 – perhaps the $30 million – question.
In summary, Céspedes is a definite big leaguer in the view of this writer. What he is worth (dollar-wise) on the open market I leave to the judgment of professional scouts and agents who determine such matters; and also to fans and journalists who seem in recent years to put far more stock in contract numbers than they do in old-fashioned statistical performance lines. How far Céspedes actually goes – both in the big-league bidding wars and in his eventual on-the-field performance – of course depends on all those intangibles and “unmeasurables” that always attach to any untested top prospect – no matter what his country of origin might be.
Note: In recent seasons I have most frequently spelled the slugger’s first name with a pair of n’s (Yoennis); it appears throughout Cuban press reports and in recent issues of the annual Cuban League guidebook in both forms (either one n or two). One colleague has recently reported to me that Yoenis had decided to drop one letter from his name after leaving Cuba, but this is clearly not the true explanation for the inconsistent spellings since they long preceded his departure. Inconsistent spelling of ballplayers’ names is a hallmark of the Cuban guidebooks. Gourriel often appears as Gorriel, for one example, and the family names of both Michel Enríquez (Isla de la Juventud) and Luis Navas (Santiago) have often appeared without the final consonant, not only in the guidebooks but on their team uniforms also.
Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely considered a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He reports on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com and also writes a regular monthly Cuban League Report for www.ibaf.com. He is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.