The Risk WORTH TAKING

Money-conscious Oakland shelled out $9 million a year for a Cuban slugger no other team would touch at that price. Now Yoenis Cespedes is drawing comparisons to Bo Jackson and, ahem, Willie Mays—and proving yet again that the A's know a baseball bargain when they see one
May 13, 2013

Billy Owens has evaluated thousands of prospects during his 15 years with the A's, the last decade of which he has spent as the club's director of player personnel. Rarely has Owens submitted to general manager Billy Beane and his colleagues in Oakland's front office a scouting report as glowing—as certain—as the one he filed in October 2010 from the qualifying tournament for the Pan American Games in San Juan.

"Live bodied, athletic CF for the Cuban National Team [who] is built like a young Emmitt Smith," Owens wrote. "Physical, defined. Ripped with muscles throughout. Tooled up. Go for the gusto, aggressive hitter. Uncoils and attacks. Plus bat speed and strength. Slashing, powerful swing. Capable of centering the baseball and doing damage." After a few more lines in which Owens outlined the player's minimal hitting deficiencies ("Will chase and get out on front foot occasionally") and his fielding prowess ("Arrogantly patrols the OF and naturally glides with grace"), he reached his conclusion. "Plenty of suitors will line up a Brink's Truck with a wheelbarrow full of cash if he defects while he is in his prime," he wrote. "ACQUIRE!"

The following summer the 25-year-old Yoenis Cespedes secretly boarded a speedboat along with his mother, Estela Milanés—herself a former pitcher for Cuba's Olympic softball team—and several other relatives to make a 23-hour trip to the Dominican Republic. By January 2012 he had established legal residency there, allowing MLB teams to negotiate with his agent, Adam Katz, for his services. As Owens predicted, at least 15 lined up to do so, including most of the game's richest clubs.

When the identity of the winning bidder for Cespedes was announced the following month, palms slapped foreheads across baseball. Cespedes would play not in Yankee Stadium or in Wrigley Field or even in the brand-new Marlins Park, but in the dingy O.co Coliseum, thanks to the four-year, $36 million contract Beane had offered. The A's annually maintain one of the league's lowest payrolls—$53 million in 2012, last in the majors—and the team had spent the winter unloading a trio of All-Star pitchers in Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez. Cespedes seemed to bring with him more questions than answers—such as how his bat would translate from the Cuban Serie Nacional, a league that is generally considered to be the competitive equivalent of High A ball—and Oakland had just made him its highest-paid player. (The owner of the team's second-biggest contract, per annum, was outfielder Coco Crisp, who had signed a two-year, $14 million deal that January.)

In 147 games for the A's (through Sunday), Cespedes has batted .285, with 28 home runs, 98 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. The A's have gone 96--51 with him in their lineup and 16--31 with him in their dugout. He has emerged as Oakland's most important player; in a three-day stretch last week he sent one game into extra innings with a bottom-of-the-ninth two-run homer (the A's won), sent the next to extras with a two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth RBI single (they won again), and drove in four runs in the next (yet another victory). The same scouts who likened Cespedes to Raul Mondesi last spring are now comparing him to Bo Jackson and even Willie Mays. The question now is how and why did Oakland see Cespedes with a clarity that no one else did?

Before anyone had watched Cespedes, whose nickname is La Potencia (the Power), take a major league at bat, they had seen a montage of him crushing several of the Cuban-league-record 33 home runs he'd hit for his Granma Alazanes team in 2010--11, set in part to Christopher Cross's 1980 soft rock hit "Sailing." They had seen him execute Usain Bolt's signature Lightning pose before completing a 45-inch box jump, and then leg-press an enormous stack of weights on which two men were sitting, for a total of what was indicated to be 1,300 pounds. The video included footage of him tending to the coals beneath a pig that was being barbecued on a spit.

They had seen all this in the 20-minute video titled The Showcase, which Cespedes and his agent had produced and released in November 2011. It quickly went viral. "I think the video helped me a lot," said Cespedes through a translator in March. "A lot of teams could see me and see the condition I was in, and maybe they'd be interested in signing me." This was not exactly true.

"It's funny," says Farhan Zaidi, Oakland's 36-year-old director of baseball operations. "A lot of people thought this was one of the few sources of information about the player, that clubs were looking at this video and wondering how much he's worth. We watched that video, and we had the same reaction as anybody else watching it. But it certainly didn't weigh into the process we went through in trying to figure out how aggressive we were going to be."

No interested club, at least consciously, viewed the video as good for anything but a laugh and an e-mail forward. Each of them had long before compiled a dossier on him by sending scouts, who were forbidden from entering Cuba, to watch him play in international tournaments and by trying to project his numbers. They were all intrigued by him, but none believed in him as much as the A's did.

"We were in on him for a much lesser amount," says Brian Cashman, the G.M. of the Yankees. "For the amount he got, you'd have to look ownership in the eye and say that this is an everyday, major-league-ready outfielder. We couldn't represent that."

Says Red Sox G.M. Ben Cherington, "I wouldn't want to comment on whether we made a bid, but we were involved in scouting him, spent a fair amount of time on him, liked him, recognized the talent. It's definitely a risk in investing that kind of money in a player on whom you simply have less data than a proven major league player."

Another G.M. was even more pessimistic. "Crazy risk," he says. "I wouldn't sign a guy for four-times-nine that you have no clue about. You don't know his makeup, you don't know his aptitude, you don't know so many things you need to know. The outcome of it? Already, I would have done it, now that I know what I know. Before it played out, I thought it was crazy."

It was a kind of crazy the A's had come to welcome. For one, they had come to believe that embracing the sort of risk their well-heeled competitors avoided, finding a $20 million player for $9 million ("an engaging of high-variance strategies," as Zaidi says), was one of the few ways they might contend. "You can spend your money on a guy like this, who's risky but has a chance to really be a star, or you can spend three-times-seven or four-times-eight on a big leaguer who is a more certain thing but isn't really going to swing the fate of your franchise much either way," says Zaidi. "If you're a team like New York or Boston, it probably makes less sense. There are ways for them to spend their money safer, to get similarly productive players who just cost them more." Zaidi was hired for just such analysis. Beane plucked the MIT graduate's résumé out of a pile in 2004, when Zaidi was a graduate student in behavioral economics at Cal. He finished his dissertation, titled Top of Mind in Task-Based Environments and Choice Under Risk, in 2010.

Another reason the A's felt Cespedes was worth it was that they believed they had gone far beyond what other teams had done to evaluate him. For at least three years they directed their scouts to do more than simply drop in on conveniently located major international tournaments to observe Cespedes. Their scouts traveled the world—to Europe, to Japan, to Mexico, to Taiwan—so as not to miss a single at bat in more than 20 games.

Dan Kantrovitz, a 34-year-old graduate of Brown and Harvard who was Oakland's director of international scouting from 2009 until the Cardinals hired him to run their scouting department in January 2012, watched Cespedes more than anyone else. As Kantrovitz tracked Cespedes, watching a swing that "is a little violent, but also beautiful and rare to see," he was surprised to see so few familiar faces in the stands with him. "I'd write in e-mails back to Oakland that we just saw some of the best players in the world play, and there were only, like, three or four other teams there," he says. "We took a lot of pride in the fact that when we would get memos from MLB—that a Cuban player's becoming a free agent—we never had to say, 'Who is this guy?'"

Once Cespedes left Cuba, it was decision time. Much of the work fell to Zaidi, who attempted to translate Cespedes's Cuban statistics to the U.S. He knew the exercise was problematic for a number of reasons, primarily because so few players have made the leap between leagues. "The sample of players is so thin that you're basically saying, Well, we think Yoenis is going to be good because Alexei Ramirez was good," Zaidi explains. "Alexei and Yoenis are two completely different players."

The bulk of Zaidi's task involved what to do with the body of positive reports that had been submitted by Kantrovitz, Owens and the club's other scouts. "You're trying to impose analytical discipline on what is fundamentally qualitative information," he says. To that end, Zaidi built a model that analyzed not just the grades the scouts had given to Cespedes on the usual eight-point scale, but also the scouts themselves. "Say three guys have a six power on him, three guys have seven power on him. What kind of minor leaguers or major leaguers do those guys have those grades on?"

Zaidi is known as Tools Police around Oakland's front office for his propensity for punching analytical holes in scouts' observations. This time, though, he more than agreed with them. "He came up with an analytical manifesto, almost, endorsing the signing," says Kantrovitz. With Beane and his longtime assistant, David Forst, Zaidi made an impassioned presentation to the club's ownership about why it was a good idea.

Ownership agreed, but a few things still had to fall into place. One was that Oakland's final bid was as much as they could afford. If a richer club continued to raise its paddle, it would be out of luck. The A's were helped by the fact that Cespedes hit the market relatively late in the off-season when many franchises had already exhausted their budgets. The Tigers, for instance, had given Prince Fielder a nine-year, $214 million deal in late January. The Rangers had just completed their pursuit of Yu Darvish. "I've thought about it a lot," says Jon Daniels, the Rangers' G.M. "We had a $100 million investment in a foreign player, so that's where our focus was."

Signing a risky player is one thing; having the gamble pay off is the more difficult problem. "We have a lot more Asian players who come over after playing in Japan, and we still can't get that right," notes Forst. "With Yoenis, it was the same as any free agent, anytime you commit that amount of dollars. You're really excited. But you also go, O.K., this had better work."

Over the last three decades, 52 Cuban-born players have appeared in at least one major league game. Ariel Prieto was among the first of that group to come to the U.S. When he arrived to pitch for Oakland at 25 in July 1995, he felt utterly alone. He would ride a hotel shuttle between the Hilton, in which he lived, and the Coliseum. At night he would lie awake in bed and think, I don't know what I'm going to do here. It was not until his teammates Geronimo Berroa and Stan Javier, both from the Dominican Republic, took him under their wings, to explain to him not only the workings of a new league but also an entirely new culture and country, that he began to feel comfortable.

Given the money they'd invested, and over a relatively short term, the A's knew they could afford no such lost period for Cespedes. So Forst telephoned a pitching coach in the A's minor league organization and told him he had a new job as Cespedes's translator and cultural guide: Ariel Prieto.

Now 43, Prieto became Cespedes's housemate and constant companion last spring, and he set about instructing Cespedes in the ways of American ballplayers, and Americans as a whole. "Everyone thinks the United States is easy, but it's not," Prieto says. Through him, the sudden millionaire learned about insurance and how banks work. And Prieto warned him not to drive too fast. (Cespedes now owns an Alfa Romeo 8C.)

Prieto helped the A's understand some of Cespedes's habits while at the same time trying to cure him of some of those that were the most unhealthy. Like his favorite beverage: a glass of whole milk sweetened with six spoons of sugar. And his desire to consume little but red meat. "When he come over here, the first day, he wants steak—right now. I'm teaching him how to eat salmon." And the cigarettes he sometimes smokes, such as during an early-morning interview with a reporter in the clubhouse manager's office at the team's spring training facility.

Of course, any team that would have been turned off by a foreign player's dietary peccadilloes or the occasional cigarette wouldn't have ended up with Yoenis Cespedes. "I think everybody around him has at least had an appreciation for how difficult an adjustment there was ahead for him," says Zaidi. "That helps a lot."

In other ways Cespedes quickly bonded with his teammates, at least as far as their continuing language barrier has allowed. "He likes to show off his toys, which everybody in here does," says outfielder Josh Reddick. "The big 52 on his gold chain that somehow doesn't weigh his neck down." More than that, though, he has connected with them through their shared devotion to baseball.

During spring training Cespedes often awoke in advance of his 5 a.m. alarm, and he was at the facility by 5:30. "Sometimes it's only the clubbie, the manager and me," he says. There, he works out with the energy seen in his famous Internet video—"Oh, he kills those freaking weights," reports Prieto—but the A's always knew, based on his thickly built 5'10", 210-pound body, that he liked to work out.

What they hoped was that he had the drive and the intellect to continually adapt to a league in which pitchers had abilities and resources—such as scouting reports and video technologies—that were more sophisticated than any he had previously faced. This was the part of the gamble that ultimately held back every other team's pursuit of him. It was the part that would be almost entirely up to him.

The result? "The quickest learning curve I've ever seen," says A's manager Bob Melvin. "Early last spring he was swinging at pitches that were way out of the zone. The next time he faced that guy, he wasn't."

"The thing he could do right from the start was crush mistakes," says Forst. "The homer he hit that won our second game of 2012, in Japan, proved right away that he can hit a hanging breaking ball. But the ability he developed to lay off those pitches, know how teams were pitching to him and make adjustments was very impressive."

Cespedes's strikeout rate in 2012 fell almost monthly, from 25% in March and April to 15% in September and October. In other words, he began the season whiffing as frequently as Josh Hamilton and ended it whiffing as infrequently as Buster Posey. To Cespedes this was no big deal. "I just had to recognize what kind of pitches they had, because it's a completely different league with a lot better pitchers than in Cuba, but right after I started doing that, that's when I started seeing the ball," he says with a shrug.

To the A's it was a huge deal. "Let's put it this way: That aptitude wasn't really part of the projection," says Zaidi. "In a weird way, he went from being, at the early part of the season, at one extreme end of what we expected—which was a guy who would maybe struggle with plate discipline, still hit for power but have some holes that could be exploited—all the way to the other end. If you asked me, I would have said the guy you get on Day One is probably the guy you're getting at the end of the season, because it's so rare for guys to improve that much over the course of the season. That's something that's sort of an out-of-sample result.

"What he did, overall, was closer to the upper end of what we expected, probably close to the 75th or 80th percentile," adds Zaidi. "It was at the aggressive end of what we thought was really plausible, if you weren't dreaming." This seems to be about as excited as Tools Police gets.

The end of 2012, for the A's, came later than anyone, including the team, expected. The unlikely AL West champs lost their division series to the Tigers in five games, but not for a lack of effort from the man who'd done more than any other to carry them there. In the eighth inning of Game 2, for example, Cespedes singled to rightfield, stole second, stole third—and then scored the game-tying run on a wild pitch. "You were like, What are we all doing out here? Why is anyone else here?" recalls pitcher Brett Anderson.

For Anderson, Cespedes is "as close to Mike Trout as you can probably get, talentwise." Trout, who was the unanimous American League Rookie of the Year last season (Cespedes finished second), counts himself as an admirer. "I like his approach when he's up at the box," says the Angels' budding superstar. "He's all out, 100 percent. He plays the game hard, and he's going out there for one thing, which is to win."

The course of Cespedes's 2012 season was all the more impressive in that he was dealing with personal issues that extended beyond adapting to American pitchers and customs. Members of his family, including his mother and about a dozen other relatives, were trapped in an immigration nightmare as they tried to join him in the U.S. They were detained in the Turks and Caicos last Oct. 2, just five days before that stunning sequence against the Tigers. "I could tell something was wrong with him—you just get a sense of it," says Reddick, "but he didn't give me the full extent."

In March, Cespedes's family made it to Miami, and the A's let him take a day off from spring training to surprise them there. "It weighed on my mind a lot last season," he told reporters upon his return. "Sometimes I went three or four days where I didn't know where they were. They had disappeared."

The bottom line? "My mind will be completely clear knowing they are in this country."

The A's are eager to see what a clear-minded Cespedes will do for them. At 27, he has plenty of room to improve: He still lunges at pitches, as Billy Owens noted three years ago in Puerto Rico. He can further refine his batting eye. He is somewhat unpolished in the outfield. The rest of baseball, meanwhile, wonders if there might be more players just like him, in light of the outstanding minor league debuts of other recent defectors such as the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig and the Cubs' Jorge Soler.

"I think it's too soon to tell," says Zaidi. "Even guys like Puig and Soler, I think, are pretty unique in Cuba. I don't think there are 100 more of those guys running around. It's probably opened people's eyes, to the extent that there are teams that are less active in that market—maybe they'll look at the next guys more carefully. Right now it's really case-by-case. It's hard to say that this market represents a safe investment."

For the A's, Cespedes looks to be the most rewarding kind of investment. "We were thorough. We calibrated everything," says Owens. "With all that being said, Yoenis Cespedes? La Potencia? He exceeded all expectations."

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"Crazy risk," one G.M. says of the A's offer for Cespedes. And now? "Now that I know what I know, I would have done it."

Cespedes's performance in 2012 "was at the aggressive end of what we thought plausible, if you weren't dreaming," says Zaidi.

SI.COM

Who is the next breakout star from Cuba? To see what SI's baseball experts think of leading candidates Jorge Soler of the Cubs and Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers, go to SI.com/mag

PHOTOPhotograph by THEARON W. HENDERSON/GETTY IMAGESA CUT ABOVE "Violent, beautiful and rare to see" is how a scout described Cespedes's swing, though he's still learning to harness its beauty in the majors. PHOTOBRAD MANGIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDCONFIDENCE MEN Oakland's staff, including (below right, from right) Beane, Forst and Zaidi, studied Cespedes for three years, developing a dossier on him that they were sure was deeper than that of any other club. PHOTOJEFF BOTTARI/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOANDA CHU/OAKLAND TRIBUNE/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.COM[See caption above] PHOTOMICHAEL ZAGARIS/OAKLAND ATHLETICS/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOBORN TO PLAY MANAGEMENT (PIG)NEW WORLD Prieto (far right) helped Cespedes leave his pig-roasting days in Cuba behind and quickly embrace the nuances of American culture—a process that was critical to his success on the field. PHOTOJOHN G. MABANGLO/EPA[See caption above] PHOTOMICHAEL ZAGARIS/OAKLAND ATHLETICS/GETTY IMAGES (CLUBHOUSE)[See caption above]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)