The international player market has been much more active this winter than in years past in terms of MLB-ready talent, and that will likely continue over the next month. This week, I’d like to go over some of the names that are coming up in the news, what I’ve heard from scouts and talent evaluators about these players, and what we should expect once they make the jump to America. Today we’ll go in-depth on the guy Kevin Goldstein called “arguably the best all-around player to come out of Cuba in a generation,” and on Thursday we’ll talk about some imports from Japan.
Yoenis Cespedes | OF | Cuba | Set to become a free agent
Set to become a free agent any day now, Cespedes is the biggest name on this winter’s international market aside from Yu Darvish, going from a no-name to an internet sensation overnight when a scouting video of the Cuban defector went viral—aided in part by a practical frame-by-frame review from our own Kevin Goldstein.
In talking with scouts, everyone is in agreement that Cespedes is a physical freak; however, some made mention that this hasn’t always been the case. As recently as the World Baseball Classic in 2009, Cespedes was said to have been almost a completely different player. A few scouts I spoke with hadn’t seen him since the WBC and didn’t feel it was even worth it to relay their impressions because Cespedes has changed so dramatically. Given his striking change in stature and tools, one scout who has seen Cespedes recently actually speculated that Cespedes could be on HGH. To be clear, this was pure speculation and not grounded in any actual knowledge or evidence, but it is worth passing along as Cespedes is sure to get tested under MLB’s new policies and would need to stop, which may or may not affect his tools and performance.
Cespedes has plenty of tools. Cespedes’ calling card is his ability to drive a ball a mile; he is tied as Cuba’s single-season home run leader. One scout said his raw power approaches an 80 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale, and his speed might not be far behind. You wouldn’t know by his modest stolen-base totals, but the aforementioned scouting video shows Cespedes running a 6.3-second 60-yard dash (which qualifies for an 80 grade), but scouts tell me that he’s more often in the 6.4- or 6.5-second range. That’s nothing to sneeze at, though; those times still grade out to 75 and 70, respectively. It’s worth noting that back in 2009, Cespedes was merely an average runner, and certainly didn’t have 80-grade power.
Despite tremendous tools (which also include plus bat speed), those I spoke with gave Cespedes’ approach at the plate mixed reviews. While some like it, others believe he’s too aggressive and a bit of a free-swinger. That’s not to say he has a bad eye, but more likely, comes from a belief that he can hit anything. Despite this, Cespedes doesn’t strike out that much, which one scout attributed to his aggressiveness early in the count and his ability to compensate for mistakes with his good bat speed. It could be a different story against major-league pitching, though, so adjustments will prove necessary. One scout mentioned that Cespedes can struggle with well-located pitches on the inner portion of the plate, as his swing is a bit on the long side and he likes to get his arms extended to drive the ball, but that’s a trait a lot of power hitters share.
Defensively, scouts are torn over where Cespedes should play. Some believe he’s improved enough since 2009 to play a capable center field, where he could take advantage of his speed and hide what is just an average arm, while others think right field would be a better home since he’s not likely to be much more than average in center and could be a plus defender in the corner.
What most of the scouts I spoke with did agree on was that Cespedes may have some makeup problems. He is said to have an ego, and is known for displaying some showboat-y behavior on the field. That’s not the kind of thing you want to hear about a young player who is sure to face challenges and will be required to make adjustments to major-league pitching. Humility and hard work are necessary to successfully and expediently make such adjustments, and some wonder whether this will be more difficult for Cespedes than it would be for others.
Despite the hype Cespedes has received, the consensus seems to be that he’ll merely be a solid regular to start off his MLB career and will be best-suited for the bottom half of the order. If he’s able to make the necessary adjustments, his upside is a veritable middle-of-the-order threat. He has tremendous tools, and at 26 years old, his best years lie ahead of him.
Still, all of the hype Cespedes is receiving could drive his price up in fantasy leagues beyond where I’d be comfortable drafting him, so I have doubts he’ll wind up on many of my teams. With all of the question marks around him, I’d feel much better selecting a surer thing. If I’m going to delve into the international import market on draft day, I’d much rather spend my auction dollars on a player with similarly excellent tools but a better reputation for his work ethic, like Yu Darvish (I gave the scouting report on Darvish last month, in case you missed it).