FOR BASEBALL'S SMALL-MARKET OCTOBER PARTY CRASHERS, THE KEY TO GETTING TO THE POSTSEASON WAS GOING GLOBAL IN THE SEARCH FOR OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD TALENT
This is an article from the Oct. 15, 2012 issue
There are few complete mysteries left in baseball. It is now a game where everything—every pitch, every swing, every ball in play—is tracked and measured with NASA-like levels of precision. Front offices and analysts are armed with player reports so comprehensive that high draft picks and potential trade targets are vetted more thoroughly than some members of the president's Cabinet. And yet, when Yoenis Cespedes first arrived in the A's spring clubhouse in Phoenix last March, the Cuban outfielder projected an aura of mystery that made him feel like something of a cross between Roy Hobbs and Bigfoot. He was "not quite real," says Oakland outfielder Josh Reddick. "None of us really knew anything about him, other than from that video."
Before the A's signed him to last winter's most fascinating deal—four years, $36 million—Cespedes was known to most people outside Cuba only through a bizarre 20-minute YouTube clip called "The Showcase," in which the protagonist is seen running sprints shirtless under a hot sun in slow motion, leg-pressing 1,300 pounds and, um, roasting a pig on a spit, among other things. "Let's just say a lot of us thought it was a little over the top," says Reddick.
Two years ago Aroldis Chapman, a Cuban phenom with his own legend, arrived at Reds camp in Goodyear, Ariz., under similar circumstances. Before he took to the back fields for his first workout with the club, Reds general manager Walt Jocketty had never seen his $30 million investment throw a baseball in person. Last weekend, when the curtain opened on another postseason, the two Cubans were mysteries no longer; they were front and center in an October that was becoming a showcase for the global growth of the game. There was Cespedes, the unlikely face of Oakland general manager Billy Beane's first playoff team in six years, going 3 for 8 with two stolen bases in the first two games of the A's Division Series against the Tigers. (The A's lost both games in Detroit before the series shifted to Oakland.) There was the Rangers' $107 million Japanese import, Yu Darvish, who in the first American League wild-card game affirmed his status as a bona fide ace with a dominant, seven-strikeout performance in a loss to the Orioles. There was Chapman, Cincinnati's own Cuban Missile, the most dazzling reliever in the postseason and a man who struck out a staggering 44.2% of the batters he faced this season, unleashing 100-mph heaters—including three straight to finish off Buster Posey and the Giants in Game 1 of their Division Series.
And there were the Orioles, too, trotting out Taiwanese lefthander Wei-Yin Chen and Mexican righty Miguel Gonzalez in consecutive games against the Yankees in their ALDS. Last year Chen, Baltimore's Game 2 starter, pitched for the Chunichi Dragons in Japan's Nippon Professional League, while scheduled Game 3 starter Gonzalez toiled in the Mexican Pacific League, with a team called Los Venados de Mazatlan. Says Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, who by now is accustomed to the struggle of making himself understood in multilingual mound conversations, "There are more languages in our clubhouse than in the freakin' United Nations."
It has been more than a decade since small-market teams began, en masse, to run their front offices like Wall Street firms, culling assets undervalued by bigger-market teams—who, of course, caught on soon enough and forced the little guys to find fresh ways of staying ahead of the curve. Finding those undervalued players became increasingly difficult. But they were still out there.
Dan Duquette believed you had to go to the ends of the earth to find them. When he took over as general manager of the Orioles last November, he inherited a losing team (14 consecutive sub-.500 seasons, no postseason appearances since 1997) pinned to the cellar floor of the American League East by franchises superior in both intellectual and real capital. As he searched for the fastest way to turn Baltimore into a winner, Duquette identified the international market as the quickest route to relevancy. "Between the free-agent and trade markets, the draft and the international market, you have to select a few to be very good in if you want to be good year in and year out," says Duquette. "The international market was one I thought we could be good in right away."
Before Duquette arrived, the Orioles had a virtually nonexistent presence in the global market, but in the last 10 months the club has signed players from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, New Zealand, Mexico, Taiwan, Venezuela, Japan and South Korea. Most of those signings (see Pita Rona, a 17-year-old former softball player from Wanganui, New Zealand, whom Duquette picked up last winter on a minor league contract) are lottery tickets, but two have already paid off. One morning last January, Fred Ferreira, the man Duquette tapped to lead the team's international scouting effort (they had worked together in the 1990s when Duquette built the Expos into a force), was sitting in the stands at a Mexican League game in Mazatlan, on the country's Pacific coast. An 75-year-old scout with countless stories from his decades on the road, Ferreira is the kind of guy you imagine would get along with the grumpy old bird dog played by Clint Eastwood in Trouble with the Curve. He says it took him just nine pitches—"every one was exactly where he wanted it to be"—to be convinced that Gonzalez was worth signing. The Orioles signed the 28-year-old righty to a minor league contract. After spending much of the first half in Triple A, Gonzalez was one of Baltimore's best pitchers down the stretch, going 9—4 with a 3.25 ERA in 15 starts.
Another key off-season signing was the 27-year-old Chen, who turned out to be the most reliable piece of Baltimore's rotation this season. Chen was 12—11 with a 4.02 ERA and was the only Orioles starter with enough innings (192 2/3) to qualify for the ERA title. Chen had a 2.48 ERA in four seasons with the Chunichi Dragons, and his 1.54 ERA in 2009 was the lowest for a starter in the Japanese league in more than four decades. Still, he was overlooked by most major league teams, and the Orioles scooped him up in January on a bargain deal: three years, $11.4 million. "A lefthanded pitcher in the prime of his career who throws in the 90s, with the command he has—it's not easy to find these guys," says Duquette. "Our scouts thought that he could be a top three starter down the road."
The Rangers' hefty investment in Darvish (they paid a $51 million posting fee to the righthander's Japanese team just for the rights to negotiate with him) and the Orioles' signing of Chen represent opposite ends of the financial spectrum. The success of both—Darvish was fifth in the AL with 221 strikeouts—will undoubtedly alter the market for East Asian pitchers. But Duquette still has his eye on the region. Even though Japanese pitchers have long been coming to the majors (Hideo Nomo blazed the trail in 1995, and righthander Hiroki Kuroda, the Yankees' scheduled Game 3 starter, has been in the majors for five seasons), the G.M. believes that the area is still fertile. "There's a lot of untapped talent still in Japan," Duquette says. "Taiwan is developing, with more universities that have programs for elite baseball. And now a lot of teams are active in China. Everyone's looking for baseball's Yao Ming. That would be a game-changer. It's just a matter of time."
There are big gambles and there are small gambles when it comes to international signings. He's the most intimidating reliever in the postseason now, but in 2010 Chapman, then an unproven 22-year-old, was viewed by most teams as a huge risk. The Reds felt it was one worth taking, "especially for a team like ours," says scouting director Chris Buckley. "It's awfully difficult for a small-market team to come up with that type of talent. How do we procure a lefthanded pitcher who can throw over 100 mph? The thing about that [international] market is, we didn't have to trade four players to get him; we didn't have to give up draft picks."
The Reds weren't the only small-market team that felt that way: The four teams most aggressive in the bidding for Chapman in the winter of 2009—10 were the Nationals, Orioles, Blue Jays and A's. (Cincinnati landed him with a six-year, $30.25 million offer.)
The challenges the Reds faced in evaluating Chapman were similar to those the A's faced with Cespedes. Because of the unreliability of statistics from Cuba's top baseball league, Serie Nacional, evaluating Cuban players is more art than science. Most teams didn't know what to make of Cuban stars even when they put up gaudy numbers. "There is some objective analysis you can do now on Cuban players," says A's assistant G.M. David Forst. "But it's a significant challenge. You have a pretty good sample from Japan. With Cuba we're more in the infancy stages. But each player adds a data point."
With Cespedes, the A's relied as much on the judgment of their scouts as on the numbers in front of them. Oakland didn't consider Cespedes to be a lottery ticket, not after they had talent evaluators see him multiple times at the World Baseball Classic, the World Cup and the Pan Am Games. "Our scouts projected that his skills would translate," says Forst. "You can probably count the number of players on one hand with his athleticism and physique. There's this idea that this was a four-year major league contract given on a lark, when the reality is, we had a lot of information and a lot of background on this guy."
Among the bidders for Cespedes were the Marlins, Orioles, and White Sox. The A's offered him four years, a largesse that landed them a home-run-slugging and freakishly athletic outfielder who has been compared with Jose Canseco, Bo Jackson, and Miguel Cabrera. In addition to all his physical gifts, Cespedes has a few quirks. His daily ritual includes swigging down a glass of milk fortified with 10 sugar packets. "It's not milk—it's syrup," says Ariel Prieto, his interpreter and housemate in Oakland. "That's his power drink."
"It kills us that we couldn't get Cespedes," says Buckley, who saw the Cuban play 15 times before he signed. "I can honestly say we're not at all surprised that he's doing what he's doing. The guy is a beast."
Still, for a small-market team like the A's, shelling out $36 million for such an unproven talent seemed crazy, maybe the biggest gamble of Billy Beane's 15-year reign as G.M. But after Cespedes's performance this season—he hit .292 with 23 home runs, 82 RBIs and 16 stolen bases despite missing three weeks with a strained muscle in his left hand—he'd command a far larger payday on the open market now. "Great signing," says one AL executive. "I think a lot of people are realizing they missed, and the A's got it right."
Ask Oakland players their most memorable Cespedes moment, and they don't talk about his power. They talk about his speed: "I've never seen anyone with acceleration like that," says Reddick. "He gets to full speed within two seconds." And his arm: "He's got one of the best I've ever seen," says third baseman Brandon Inge.
Those rave reviews have sent a wave of inflation through the market for Cuban players. In June the Cubs signed another Cuban outfielder, 20-year-old Jorge Soler, to a reported nine-year, $30 million deal. Soler is already drawing comparisons with Sammy Sosa: He carved up the pitching in the Arizona Rookie League and with the Cubs' low-A affiliate in Peoria, Ill., where he hit a 420-foot grand slam in his second game. Three weeks after Soler signed, the Dodgers raised more eyebrows when they gave 21-year-old Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig a seven-year, $42 million deal.
Changes in the most recent collective bargaining agreement—starting next year a signing cap will limit teams to spending roughly $2.9 million per year on international prospects—will make it more challenging for clubs that are aggressive on the global front. (The Rangers alone spent $12.8 million in 2011 on international signings.) Still, Duquette says, "[The cap] will ultimately be good for teams like ours that don't have the resources major market teams have. It just means you have to be smarter with your money and do your homework better than everyone else." (There will still be bidding wars over Japanese free agents and Cuban defectors older than 23 years old, who are excluded from the cap.)
"There was a belief out there for a long time that [Cuba] wasn't a very productive market," says Buckley, "but you're talking about a lot of guys who a year after they sign are in the big leagues and are productive, whereas most guys in the amateur draft, if they're high school players, spend four or five years in the minor leagues. And we never see them face the kind of competition that we see the Cubans face in international competition. That is a lot closer to the major leagues than seeing some high school player in Ohio.
Chapman and Cespedes remain something of an enigma off the field: Neither will talk about his defection from Cuba. Cespedes lives in a small house he shares with Prieto outside Oakland, a few blocks from San Francisco Bay. He stays up until five in the morning most nights, watching Spanish soap operas on his laptop and talking to relatives over Skype—he has a young son, Yoenis Jr., still in Cuba, and his mother, Estela Milanés, a softball pitcher who appeared in the 2000 Olympics for Cuba, lives in the Dominican Republic.
Chapman left behind his parents, two sisters and a three-year-old daughter. His transition to the U.S. has not been altogether smooth. Over the course of a week in May he was arrested for speeding (his fourth speeding ticket in two years) and was named in a strange $18 million lawsuit by a Cuban-American man claiming Chapman was an informant for the Cuban secret police and the reason for his imprisonment on the island.
Chapman's long-term role on the Reds is also unclear: The team still speaks of turning him into a starter. Even if Chapman unleashes a 100-mph fastball to get the final out for the Reds in this year's World Series and helps lead the franchise to its first championship since 1990, bigger things could be ahead for the Cuban Missile. As a starter Chapman could become a draw like Stephen Strasburg, with each of his starts at the Great American Ball Park creating the vibe of a major concert date. "I think a lot of people are watching to see what he can do with all that talent," says Buckley. "He's not a mystery anymore."
Get complete coverage of the MLB postseason, including previews and analysis of every game and postgame video reports from Tom Verducci, at SI.com/mlb