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The Next Big Thing? The Ballad of Yoennis Cespedes

I'm going to take a short break from the free agent analyses to address something a little more current: Cuban defector Yoennis Cespedes has announced his free agency for Major League Baseball.

Cespedes, a star in Cuba, defected to the Dominican Republic this summer, after hitting .333 with a Cuban League record-tying 33 home runs. Earlier this week, most teams were sending everybody they had to go to the Dominican and scout Cespedes, whose agent sent a slightly odd scouting video to MLB executives, of which Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein provides a hilarious commentary.

While the scouting video may be... unorthodox, and while he may be a communist, there is a reason half the scouts in professional baseball are in the Dominican Republic watching the 26-year-old Cespedes right now -- he's no joke.

He's a freak athlete, who can bench 350, leg press 1300, and run the 60-yard dash in 6.35 seconds, with a 45-inch vertical leap. He's no slouch on the baseball field either; his Japanese Wikipedia page says he has a career OPS of 23.976, but if my math is right it's actually more like 0.976, which is pretty good too, I guess. If you watch the video of him it's easy to see what he's capable of at the dish. He has great bat speed and generates monstrous leverage, and his power is obvious. He slugged .667 in 2011, with 33 home runs in 354 AB, and displays a smooth stroke with power to all fields; and I mean actual, legitimate opposite-field power. Check out this home run against Australia at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

Defensively, Cespedes is rated as a 'legitimate center fielder' according to Goldstein, with one scout saying: "he’s both fast twitch quick and fast. So he should be able to transition into the major leagues as a CF as well." He is supposed to have a plus arm, but those reports are conflicting, though most agree he has major league center field tools.

There are two questions surrounding Cespedes: The first is his age. He has a listed birth date of October 10, 1985, making him 26 for essentially the entirety of 2012. This is a bit of a turn off, as at 26, there is not much that can be done to prepare him physically for the MLB -- basically what he is now he is going to be, though anybody can improve by getting reps in against superior competition. A more serious question is the legitimacy of his age. It is essentially impossible to verify the age of Cuban players, and if he was 25 this year it means that he started pro ball at 18; which is not a stretch for a man of Cespedes' talent.

The second, and probably most pertinent, is his how his bat is going to translate to serious professional ball. You can look at this guy and tell that he's going to hit -- there are a ton of MLB hitters who would love to have his swing. The question is, how much?

Because of where he comes from, Cespedes has been compared to Leonys Martin, who hit .326/.497/.438 in Cuba in 2010 before hitting .295/.362/.421 across three levels (R, AA, AAA) in the 2011. The contrast between Martin and Cespedes raises one flag to me, which is not going to be seen by watching him take batting practice, and that is poor zone knowledge and pitch recognition. Over the last three years, he has walked about 11.4% of the time, which would be fine if he were in the Major Leagues (where the average in 2011 was 8.1%) but he isn't. Keith Law compares Cuban League pitching to low-A at best, and to not take an insane amount of walks against that type of competition at his age (26) is worrisome for his future -- especially when this guy is the Home Run King of Cuba, so he was getting plenty of respect from opposing pitchers.

You can see the drop in walks taken by Martin when he moved from Cuba to Double-A. He walked 13.7% of the time in 2010, and in 135 PA at Double-A Frisco walked 15 times (11%). If you apply the same regression to Cespedes, that's a 9.2% walk rate... at Double-A. This Minor League equivalency translator gives the difference from AA to MLB a regression rate of 0.725, meaning that a 9.2% at AA translates to an unimpressive 6.7% at the major-league level. And he might not even do that -- rest assured, he will not receive the same respect in The Show as he did in Cuba.

So what do we have in Cespedes? A guy with a beautiful swing that generates plenty of bat speed, and easy 30-HR power. He lacks, however, a good batting eye, so what do I think he is capable of at the major-league level? .270/.340/.500, if he works out at all. Richie Sexson comp?If he can do what he is supposed to be able to do in the field, in center, that interests me a lot, and if I'm a GM and I see him play an average-plus center field, I think about giving him the reported five years and $30 MM that are being thrown around. If I don't think he sticks in center, I probably walk.

The thing with Cespedes is really his age, and I don't mean the doubts about its verity. He's not Jose Iglesias defecting at 19, not Aroldis Chapman or Martin defecting at 21. He's 26. With perhaps a few minor tweaks that professional coaches could make to his game, he is the player he is going to be. He's not a prospect, he is essentially at his peak. The biggest question a GM has to ask before talking to Cespedes is, 'can he contribute to my club in 2012?' Keith Law, among many others, have said they need to see him against Triple-A pitching before they would give him a big-league job -- that chance is not going to be given. Is he a major-league baseball player or not? It's a tough one to answer, but that's why every organization has groups of men working on right now... top... men.

For my money, he's a fringe-average major-leaguer with All-Star upside, but they don't ask me. What I do know is that he's an intriguing possibility for many teams, and both his courting and signing, as well as his professional career, should be fun to watch unfold.

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