Pujols to the Angels. Fielder to the Tigers. And on Monday morning, yet another mystery team struck as the Oakland Athletics agreed to a four-year, $36 million dollar deal with much-hyped Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes. Before getting into the future of the player, I’ll give two thoughts on the deal itself.
1) This was not about money; it was about years. The Marlins offered Cespedes at least an equal deal in terms of total outlay, but it would have come at a lower AAV over six years. Industry sources have indicated that Cespedes's representative, Adam Katz, told teams that his client required either an eight-to-ten-year deal or a four-year deal with free agency afterward. Oakland won this not necessarily by offering him the most money but by making him a free agent at 30.
2) While it might not seem to at first glance, this deal actually does make sense financially. Oakland’s payroll is still under $60 million, but that's not the point here; the point is that we've been conditioned by the recent developments in the free agent market. The middle-class free agent deal is dead. Players either get $200 million or they get a one-year deal. The days of commonplace four-year, $32 million signings are long gone. To be fair, many of these deals were ill-advised (we're looking at you Russ Ortiz and Julio Lugo), but the point is that while nearly all teams are out of the elite player sweepstakes, $30-plus million deals are affordable to nearly everyone; it's just that they need to be offered to the right players.
Cespedes and Oakland is a unique combination. The Cuban import has already cleared his identity and passed his drug testing, and with his visa application in the expediting process, he should be in Phoenix within the next week or two for a physical and the official announcement. That gives him a full spring training to play in an inflated offensive environment, and while there was much talk about how much time he'd need in the minor leagues to get ready (most estimates were in the 100-300 at-bat range), he's suddenly likely to break camp in the big leagues as Oakland’s everyday center fielder.
His tools are as impressive as those of anyone in the game. He has plus-plus raw power, above-average speed, the ability to play center, and a strong arm, but it's fair to anticipate significant troubles at the plate in terms of his batting average and strikeout rate. A .250 batting average might be the most realistic of expectations for Cespedes's first year, but he’ll do so much around that average that he'll still be valuable. In fact, no player in the organization is more likely to be a star, with Cespedes's peak potentially lining up with what is a hopeful window of opportunity for the A’s beginning in 2014. If that doesn't happen, he would be a very valuable trade chip.
$36 million might seem risky, but in the age of the $200 million free agent, it's a sensible deal for a player that is both big-league-ready and has some superstar potential. Barring a total bust, Cespedes will have value for Oakland in one way or another.