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Céspedes heading to Oakland but few are sure what to expect


Baseball's most bizarre showcase video begins with Star Wars-style scrolling text, pronouncing Yoenis Céspedes to be "A New Hope" (not coincidentally, the name of George Lucas' first film in the intergalactic series) and revealing that the Cuban outfielder -- who reportedly agreed to a four-year, $36-million contract with the Athletics this week -- is nicknamed "El Talento or La Potencia."

From there, the reel segues into an eclectic soundtrack that starts with Christopher Cross' rock ballad "Sailing" -- to which, incongruously, clips of Céspedes demonstrating his all-fields power are shown -- and later delves into modern hits sung by Lil' Wayne, Jay-Z and Chris Brown, while the 6-foot, 215-pound Céspedes shows off some impressive workout feats.

Among them are, purportedly, a 6.3-second 60-yard dash time (with slow-mo, bare-chested close-ups), several 45-inch standing box jumps, a 1,300-pound leg press (with two men sitting on the machine to add weight) and a 350-pound bench press.

That doesn't include perhaps his greatest skill: home-run admiration. (Céspedes, who shares Cuba's single-season home-run record with 33 in 90 games, is not shy about batter's-box viewings of his work.) But at least there are cheery messages interjected throughout, such as "I've done it all in Cuba, now I must move on!" and "Doing Whatever It Takes To Be The BEST!!!" He also gives a shoutout to former NFL running back Ahman Green, who apparently helped him with his training.

Clear away the frivolities surrounding the video, however, and watch again on mute, cueing in only on the man at work. Even if the measurements and times aren't verifiable, the point is made: Céspedes is a sculpted specimen with extremely talented, if raw, tools. One doesn't have to be a major league talent evaluator to see the explosive athleticism of a professional athlete.

So while the video elevated his profile, it simultaneously detracted (or at least distracted) from its purpose of showcasing the 26-year-old Céspedes as a player with obvious discipline and a serious pursuit of improvement.

"He's really a levelheaded, dedicated young ballplayer," Cuban baseball historian Peter Bjarkman said in a telephone interview.

Bjarkman has tracked the Cuban Serie Nacional (the country's top league) and the national team for nearly two decades and over that time has seen the country's top players both in the domestic league and in international competitions. He's one of the few Americans who has had multiple conversations with Céspedes -- who, despite his name recognition as a highly-sought free agent, remains a mystery on a personal level -- and found him to be "a very outgoing, personable guy."

Céspedes' agent, Adam Katz, echoed that sentiment. Katz first met Céspedes in the Dominican Republic shortly after his mid-summer defection and saw the ballplayer surrounded by a half-dozen family members -- his mother, Estela Milanés, a softball pitcher who competed for Cuba in the 2000 Olympics; an aunt; and a few nephews and nieces -- and made a positive first impression, despite having just gone through a travel ordeal.

"He was a smart, serious, sweet kid," Katz said.

Céspedes is also, much to the surprise of the baseball world, the highest-paid player in Oakland. The A's were not thought to be interested in Céspedes after spending most of their offseason trading major leaguers to replenish the farm system in order to make a serious playoff run in a few seasons, not to mention their small payroll and overflow of outfielders. (Oakland's second-highest paid player is also a centerfielder, Coco Crisp.)

But in a marketplace where veteran free agents seem to be going for either mega-deals or one-year contracts, the A's perhaps believed they could gain value with a middle-class free agent. As a centerfielder with power, Céspedes is a prospect to dream on.

"We've actually scouted him for the last four or five years in international competition," Oakland's director of player personnel, Billy Owens, said on MLB Network Radio, "and he blows you away with the sheer physicality of him, the running speed, the power potential. He's a good makeup kid. Just from following the past couple years, he's a winning ballplayer."

Last year Céspedes batted .333 with a .424 on-base percentage, .667 slugging, 33 home runs and 99 RBI in 90 games last year for Granma in Cuba. But he's had mixed success in international competitions.

He was Cuba's starting centerfielder in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, during which he went 11-for-24 with six extra-base hits (a double, three triples and two homers). He smacked one of his triples off Japan's Hisashi Iwakuma, who joined the Mariners this offseason, giving Céspedes experience against at least one intra-divisional pitcher.

But in the '09 Baseball World Cup Céspedes batted only .194 and lost his starting job to Leonys Martin, who spent last year in the Rangers' minor league system after his own defection.

In an article analyzing Céspedes' major league potential, Bjarkman described the player as "a legitimate five-tool prospect" though he "has not quite met expectations against better pitching and under the pressures of international play." Bjarkman raised questions about how Céspedes will fare against major league pitching, especially in his first season, because of a tendency to be a freeswinger.

Bjarkman said the overall level of play in Cuba's top league is comparable to Double A ball in the States, but he noted that Cuba's elite players -- the top 25 to 40 or so -- are obvious major league-caliber ballplayers. Céspedes is decidedly in that group, he said, but probably more of a top-10 player than a top-5.

"Few of the really top players have ever left [Cuba]," Bjarkman said. "The real cream of the crop has not left. The only ones who really are major stars at the time they left were [Jose] Contreras and Alexei Ramirez. Most of the guys that have left have been young ballplayers, some with more upside than others, like Kendrys Morales, but Morales had only played two years in the Cuban league at the time that he left. He was really young and untested."

Céspedes' performance in the Dominican Winter League last month was lacking, though that probably can be excused to rust, as he had not played a meaningful game in a year. Suiting up for Aguilas, he went 5-for-35 with one home run, 10 strikeouts and no walks.

Publicly, the Marlins were thought to his most serious suitor, but even they weren't convinced Céspedes would become a star. Manager Ozzie Guillen described Céspedes as "pretty impressive" and that "the tools are there" while acknowledging he was no sure thing.

"There are a lot of question marks out there," Guillen said to ESPN 1000 in Chicago. "How's he going to handle major league pitching? We don't know. How's he going to handle major league media? We don't know. There are a lot of ifs. Whoever signs him is gambling."

Much of the hype and the appeal of Céspedes and other international veteran players, as was the case with Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish, is the instant gratification. The presumption is that such ballplayers -- unlike even the most hyped amateur signees -- can make an immediate impact without having to toil in the minors for a season or more. It's why the baseball world is always looking for the next phenom. It isn't just a search for the next superstar.

It's a desire, in other words, for a new hope.