The early word on Yoenis Cespedes is in. "He's the real deal," says a scout who has seen him this spring. "Very mature approach. Very professional. And he can hit. He's the best hitter on the A's right now. Oakland made a great gamble."
Says an executive on a rival American League team, "Impressive. We liked him, too. It's early, the jury's still out, but it's pretty clear he has the tools to be an impact guy -- with the bat and with the glove."
Oakland's $36 million mystery man took the field for the first time on the morning of March 4, at the A's complex in Phoenix. He stepped up to the plate for his first B.P. session as A's hitting coach Chili Davis looked on. Cespedes' childhood idol, Manny Ramirez, was standing nearby. After Cespedes took his first cuts, Ramirez walked over to the 26-year-old and leaned in with a few words of advice. For the rest of the workout, the unlikely pair was inseparable. "Like two little puppies -- everywhere Manny was, Cespedes was," says a scout.
The A's won't be a playoff contender in 2012, not with the powerhouse Angels and Rangers in the same division. But at least they'll be interesting. Cespedes will be one of the most intriguing players in baseball this season -- and he may very well turn out to be the bargain of the winter. The A's, of course, don't know yet what kind of player Cespedes will be, but they scoff at the notion that the signing that stunned the baseball world was a big gamble. "I know that because the average fan doesn't have the access to Cuban players, it seems that this guy is a little more mysterious than most guys," says A's assistant GM David Forst. "We had a lot of information on him. Teams have had information on Cespedes for years. We'd done a lot of background work, spent years watching this guy play in international competition. It was one that was very calculated based on both subjective and objective data we've had over the years."
Adds Forst, "There's this idea out there that this was a four-year major league contract just kind of on a lark, when the reality is that we had a lot of information and a lot of background on this guy -- there is some amount of objective analysis you can do now on Cuban players based on their performances. And this guy is a pretty special physical specimen."
Every day in A's camp, there are more and more believers. Cespedes homered off Cincinnati's Jeff Francis in his first spring training game, but what he did in his first plate appearance was just as impressive: He didn't take a single swing as he drew a six-pitch walk off Edison Volquez. "I thought that for as long as he was away from spring training, it'd be a challenge for him to make the team, especially with them starting early in Japan," says the scout. "But after watching his approach, and watching him swing the bat, and how desperate they need someone like him in the lineup, I don't see any reason why he shouldn't break in with the team. I think he has to."
Here's the latest on four other AL players who are under the microscope this spring:
A word from Brian Cashman: Believe all the "Phil Hughes is In the Best Shape Of His Life" stories. "He looks great," says the Yankees GM. "He wound up doing what he did two years ago -- going to Athletes Performance in Arizona and working his butt off." Cashman says that last offseason Hughes "didn't do as much work. When you go 18-8 [as he did in 2010], sometimes when you're young you take a step back and rest on your laurels. Maybe that happened. He's got great strength now. He's in great shape. I know when he's healthy he's capable of big things. Let's remember, he's still just 25."
What will the Red Sox get from Crawford this year? The wrist injury is troubling -- "Because you use that joint every time you swing, it's not uncommon at all to have little flareups down the road," says Red Sox G.M. Ben Cherington --- but the Red Sox are very encouraged that the left fielder is in a far better place mentally than he was a year ago. "Everything else, with how he feels about himself and being a part of the clubhouse, we've been really impressed so far this spring," says Cherington. "In talking to Carl [this offseason], last year was a big adjustment. He had only known one organization and it was a pretty unique one, with the cocoon that can exist there in Tampa. Boston's a different ball of wax, and he's going to be much more prepared this year. He put too much pressure on himself. I just don't believe that's going to carry over for the long term."
It's no secret Minnesota's fortunes rest with the M&M Boys, Joe Mauer and Morneau, who missed a combined 194 days last year. Mauer has looked like the Mauer of old in camp -- the Twins should be much more concerned about Morneau, whose recovery from concussion symptoms continue. The signs this spring have not been good, says a scout: The first baseman has struggled at the plate and has had trouble pulling the ball. "I just don't think he's ever going to be the same player," says the scout.
"It seems that every year we say this about B.J. -- but I think this is the year that he's going to put it all together," a scout says of Tampa's perennially underachieving center fielder. This spring there are signs that Upton's hot September from last year will carry over. "[In September] he wasn't swinging and missing as much with stuff on the outside of the plate," the scout says. "He's driving the ball well this spring. Maybe it's the extra motivation of the contract year." Upton's future in Tampa will be a big topic all season long --- the 27-year-old will be a free agent after this season