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Signed CF-R Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal. [1/13]

Kevin Goldstein began his post on Yoenis Cespedes yesterday by mentioning a pair of high-profile signings from earlier this offseason: Pujols to the Angels and Fielder to the Tigers. I’m going to begin mine (well, aside from the preceding sentence) by listing a few lower-profile transactions consummated since the World Series: Jeff Fiorentino to the A’s. Jason Pridie to the A’s. Brandon Moss to the A’s. Collin Cowgill to the A’s. Josh Reddick to the A’s. Coco Crisp to the A’s. Seth Smith to the A’s. Jonny Gomes to the A’s. And now, Yoenis Cespedes to the A’s. These players have at least a couple things in common. The first, which is probably pretty obvious, is that they’re all Oakland A’s. The second is that they’re all outfielders.

The A’s also have a trio of more or less big-league-ready outfield prospects in Grant Green, Chris Carter, and Michael Taylor. Their top prospect, Michael Choice, will be ready by 2013. He’s an outfielder, too. Basically, Billy Beane’s life looks like this these days:*

*It took me roughly as long to make this as it did to write the rest of the article. So many outfielders, so few image manipulation skills. (H/T Gene Roddenberry)

Okay, so the situation isn’t quite as crazy as I’m making it sound. The A’s let other teams sign Josh Willingham and David DeJesus this winter, and they also sold Jai Miller to the Orioles and sent Ryan Sweeney to the Red Sox in the Reddick trade.* That cut down on the outfield surplus to some extent, but there are still enough A’s outfielders milling around at the major-league level to fill a few unremarkable rosters. Maybe Beane is hoping that the rest of the league will wake up one day to discover that he's acquired every available fourth or fifth outfielder. Any team that wants a bench will have no choice but to submit to his demands.

*Late last year, the A’s caused quite a stir around the internet by displaying the following depth chart on their official site:

In December, Ryan Sweeney was supposed to play all three outfield spots in Oakland. Now he’s not playing any. Not only that, but the A’s now have a couple of options at DH instead of an “image not found” icon. What a difference an offseason makes.

So what do the A’s want with an expensive outfielder like Cespedes—who’ll be their priciest player in 2012 even though his backloaded deal will pay him only $6.5 million—when they could fill their farm teams down to Double-A with the guys they already have? The simple answer is that none of those other outfielders is Yoenis Cespedes. Most of them are fourth outfielders, if that—the A’s willingness to keep packing the pastures with warm bodies tells us plenty about their opinions of the likes of Taylor and Green. Choice might have Cespedes-like upside with the bat, but he’ll be a corner guy before he reaches the big leagues. Maybe the A’s didn’t expect Cespedes to fall into their price range when they acquired those other spare parts and almost-starting-outfielders. Regardless, you don’t let Cespedes slip out of your grasp because Brandon Moss is already growing on your bench. As Kevin wrote yesterday, “no player in the organization is more likely to be a star” than Cespedes, whose “tools are as impressive as those of anyone in the game.”

Once you start hearing those superlatives, Cespedes’ price tag starts to sound more reasonable. So what if he’s never played in the States? So what if, at age 26, he’s probably already reached his physical prime? If he fulfills that potential and becomes a star, or even gets most of the way there, he’ll be more than worth the money. Sure, $9 million a year is a lot for the A’s. But it’s not all that much out in the wide world of free agent outfielders. It’s Michael Cuddyer money. Actually, it’s less than Cuddyer money—the Rockies will pay Cuddyer $10.5 million per year, only for three seasons instead of four. Considering Cespedes is over six years younger than Cuddyer, that extra year seems like a small price to pay.

That makes this a Moneyball move, even if the kinds of players who used to make for Moneyball moves didn’t have incredible core strength or the ability to leg press the population of a small village. The A’s have been aggressive on the international market, both in landing Michael Ynoa and in almost landing Alexei Ramirez and Aroldis Chapman, and the same motivation applies in their successful pursuit of Cespedes, who has the added bonus of being over 23 and exempt from the new CBA's international spending restrictions. They can’t get established stars at a $9 million AAV, but they can get Cespedes, who might become one. And so they did. And now they’ll wait and hope that Cespedes isn’t a bust, that he won’t look lost if he starts the season in the majors, that he’ll make enough contact to keep his average up, that the culture shock won’t shatter his focus.

But while it may be a Moneyball move, it’s not one solely informed by numbers. That’s because it’s hard to decide exactly what the numbers are saying about Cespedes. Consider how his stats stack up to the rest of the Cuban league, according to the records tirelessly collected by Clay Davenport. Cespedes hit .333/.424/.667 in 354 at-bats last season. That sounds fantastic—until you look at the Cuban league leaders. Cespedes’ 33 homers tied with Jose Abreu's for tops in the league, but judging by both his triple-slash lines and Clay’s adjusted EqA, he wasn’t even close to being Cuba’s best hitter. (Cuba is experiencing an offensive boom that’s sent run-scoring and homer-hitting to unprecedented levels, and Cespedes plays in the island’s most hitter-friendly park.) Abreu was: in 212 at-bats, he hit a ridiculous .453/.597/.986.*

*To look at stats like that, you'd think teams would be elbowing Cespedes aside in their eagerness to get to Abreu, even if he is a first baseman. The only catch is that he hasn't defected yet, which is kind of a big one, as catches go. Still, Abreu is even younger and more accomplished than Cespedes, so he has to be thinking about making a move.

Abreu wasn’t the only one with eye-popping stats. Someone named Frederich Cepeda hit .397/.519/.774, also in over 300 at-bats. Another someone named Michel Enriquez hit .401/.501/.625. Cespedes wasn’t even the most successful hitter on his own team: three others were better. Of course, all of those players were first basemen and corner outfielders, not superb defenders in center*, and they weren’t as young as Yoenis, either. According to Clay, Cespedes’ closest comp among current major leaguers is Adam Jones, another strong 26-year-old center fielder who also struggles to walk and make contact. Jones is a known quantity, of course, but he’ll have no trouble exceeding the package Cespedes received when he hits the market. If Cespedes delivers the four-to-five wins Clay expects of him (we’ll have our own projection ready soon), he’ll be a steal.

*Crisp is no slouch in center himself, but the A's seem to think Cespedes is good enough on defense to shift Crisp to a corner, most likely across the outfield from Reddick.

Any projection for a Cuban player will have some pretty big error bars, even bigger than those surrounding the typical inexperienced professional player, who’s far from a sure thing himself. What that means is that the A’s are putting a lot of stock in scouting where Cespedes is concerned. Yes, scouting. Yes, the A’s. If you went to sleep after reading Moneyball and woke up just in time to see the film adaptation, that might seem strange to you. If you’ve been awake and paying attention all these years, it won’t.

The A’s have told us that they consider stats and scouting to be intertwined so tightly as to be indistinguishable They’ve also told us they like to try selling a few tickets while they rebuild, which explains why they’d be splurging on Cespedes while cutting corners elsewhere on the roster—his presence transforms a yawn-inducing lineup into something worth watching. None of this should come as a shock. (Except for all those outfielders. We can still be at least a little shocked about how many of those they have.) The A’s may have been a surprise team in the Cespedes sweepstakes, but his signing, risky as it is, makes plenty of sense. Now they just need to see about that new stadium. And given the new deals for Cespedes and for Billy Beane, we shouldn’t be surprised if that deal comes through for them, too.