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February 1, 2012

Future Shock

Who Would You Rather?

by Kevin Goldstein

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Now that Yu Darvish is a Texas Ranger, all of the attention on the international market has gone to Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes. Now that Cespedes has established residency in the Dominican Republic and is eligible to sign, the spotlight is growing brighter. His U.S.-based representative, Adam Katz, insists that Cespedes will be in camp with a team. Since he could sign soon, talk now turns to how good the outfielder will be in the majors.

Similar to last month's piece on Darvish, I polled big-league executives, many with extensive international experience and in-person looks at Cespedes. I didn’t expressly ask about tools or projection; I asked whether the exec would take Cespedes over a series of five 20-something, ultra-toolsy outfielders who have yet to fully break through. I offered a simple proposal: You can either have Cespedes or each of these five outfielders for the remainder of their career for free—so cost should not enter into the decision.

Opinions on where Cespedes fit on the scale were all over the board; one exec took all five big-leaguers ahead of Cespedes, while another chose Cespedes over all five established players.

Colby Rasmus, Toronto Blue Jays
Scouting Report: Rasmus was once one of the top outfield prospects in baseball. He seemed to be growing into stardom during his second full season, but clashes with Tony La Russa led to a 2011 trade to Toronto. Things were no better north of the border; Rasmus limped to a final batting line of .225/.298/.391.

Rasmus had few supporters among those polled, although one National League exec who favored Rasmus over Cespedes is still a believer. “He's just so young, and look at what he just did in 2010,” he said.

Others were not as convinced. “I just don't think he's as good as maybe he should be,” said an AL scouting executive. “I don't like the swing, and there's something about the J.D. Drew way he goes about things.”

Another American League front-office member was also tired of the excuses. “I just don't buy the whole ‘Tony La Russa turned this guy into a bad player’ thing.”

One National League scout who preferred Rasmus said position plays a role in the discussion as well. “I know I'm in the minority here, but I see Cespedes as more of a right fielder than one who can patrol center,” he explained. “That puts far more pressure on the bat.”
The Vote: Cespedes, 6-2

Drew Stubbs, Cincinnati Reds
Scouting Report: Stubbs is one of the best athletes in the game. He combines elite-level defense with power and speed, but severe contact issues led to 205 strikeouts in 2011 and a more than 100-point decline in OPS; his overall line was .243/.321/.364.

To some, Stubbs' struggles in 2011 were just as bad as Rasmus’s. “If you are going to punch out as much as Stubbs does, I'll take Cespedes for the bigger impact,” explained an American League scout.

Another American League scout preferred Stubbs for his defense and for being the devil you know offensively. “Stubbs is an elite defender,” he said. “And as much as we like projects and prospecting, there's a certain value to the reality of what a guy has done.”

A National League executive wondered is that reality is enough. “Stubbs is supposed to be Mike Cameron,” he said. “We haven't seen that yet.”
The Vote: Cespedes, 6-2

B.J. Upton, Tampa Bay Rays
Scouting Report: Many once saw Upton as the top prospect in the game, but his big-league career has been marred by inconsistency and questions about his effort. However, he had 23 home runs and 36 stolen bases in 2011 as part of a .243/.331/.429 season.

One AL scout drew the line here, but more due to the unknown than Cespedes’ potential. “I've already put him ahead of a couple established big-leaguers. That's pretty good,” he explained. “There's an expectation of what he's going to be, but there's still trepidation on a player that's coming here having never played a professional game.”

Another American League executive understood that line of thinking, but still preferred Cespedes. “So many of these players we're comparing him to have had their holes exposed,” he said. “We can get caught without knowing what those might be with Cespedes.”

Others have had enough of waiting on Upton. “He's always just showing flashes of what he's capable of,” said an American League scout. “The lack of adjustments and the same damn swing every time and knowing how much better he can be just drives you crazy.”
The Vote: Cespedes, 5-3

Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks
Scouting Report: While he's averaged 23 home runs and 20 stolen bases in his five full seasons as Arizona's center fielder, he's also yet to have the breakthrough year many have projected for him.

One executive who preferred Cespedes wondered if Young really belongs that far above the Rasmus/Stubbs tier. “We're five full years into Young in Arizona, and he has power and some speed and draws some walks, but he's also a career .240 hitter who has not once even had a 800 OPS.”

Still, an American League executive liked the sure thing that he saw in Young. “He's bounced back from that 2009 disaster to be a pretty good player,” he said. “He's a little older, but I'm sticking with the comfort.”

An American League executive explained how Cespedes' baseline exceeds Young's. “The proper barometer is .270, with 20-plus home runs and solid defense in center field,” he said. “His plate discipline and how he acclimates will nudge those numbers north or put them on a downward trajectory.”
The Vote: Tie, 4-4

Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles
Scouting Report: Jones’ overaggressive approach is still a turnoff, but he might finally be harnessing what are unquestionable tools. He set career highs in 2011 with 25 home runs and a .466 slugging percentage.

Jones' 2011 campaign generated considerable buzz in the industry. “He's just starting to take steps forward,” said an American League scout. “There's still room for plenty of growth.”

Still, for the scouting executive who took Cespedes over all five candidates, the import's upside is too good to pass up. “There is a lot of room for opinion on these and a lot of interpretation,” he said. “Cespedes is going to hit for power. It's not just massive raw strength—it's coordinated strength. He's a freakish athlete. I saw someone compare him physically to Bo Jackson, and while that might sound crazy, that's not far off for me. I don't think he's a guaranteed superstar, but I think there's a good chance he will be, and somebody is going to back up the Brink's truck to find out.”
The Vote: Jones, 6-2

In the end, the debate is not over the unquestioned upside of Cespedes as much as it is the chances of him reaching that ceiling. Most agree that he'll need one to three months in Triple-A to shake the rust off and get used to playing in a major-league organization. The projections for just how much he will hit, as opposed to strike out, range wildly. His ceiling is still far too alluring for some teams, and a projected deal of $40 million for five years has equal chances of being a bargain or a bust.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  The Who,  Drew Stubbs

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