A’s taking big-money risk on import Cespedes

PHOENIX — The Oakland A’s better be careful. They are going to ruin their reputation.

This is a franchise known for statistical analysis and pocketbook paralysis. On the first Sunday of March, they unveiled their latest addition, Yoenis Cespedes, a 26-year-old Cuban defector of myth-like ability. He is a virtual unknown in the professional baseball world but finds himself a center of attention with an Oakland team that won a battle among at least a dozen teams to land him.
 
“First of all, we thought he is a unique physical talent, strength, speed — we did have a lot of history from an amateur standpoint,” general manager Billy Beane said. “And really, to find a potentially center-of-the-diamond player in the prime of his career, those players usually aren’t available to us.
 
“Any time you’re putting out that type of money, it’s a risk. But he is a pretty unique talent. You don’t see guys like this come around too often.”
 
Cespedes certainly has an impressive résumé, which was enhanced when agent Adam Katz put together a 20-minute marketing film of his client that, among other things, showed Cespedes with a 45-inch vertical box jump, 6.3-second speed in the 60 and the ability to leg press 1,300 pounds.
 
There also was what scouts did see from Cespedes in events such as the World Baseball Classic, where he hit .458 with two home runs in six games, the Pan American Games and the Intercontinental Cup. And there were eye-popping career numbers in the 90-game Cuban National League, capped off by a league-record 33 home runs last year, when he also hit .333 and drove in 99 runs.
 
All that, however, comes with a need for caution. He is in his mid-20s, which is relatively young in pro baseball. However, he’s been dominant at the amateur level but not the professional level. And while there were Cubans who made a mark in the big leagues, they played primarily prior to the takeover of Cuba by Fidel Castro.
 
In the last 40 years, 48 Cuban-born players have made it to the big leagues. Fourteen of those came over with parents and actually went to school in the United States and went through the amateur draft.
 
Of the 34 who defected Cuba with the ambition to play in the major leagues, 16 were position players, and only six of those have even appeared in 100 big league games.
 
Kendrys Morales was the emerging star, having hit 34 home runs and driven in 108 runs with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2009 before breaking his leg midway through 2010 and missing all of the 2011 season. The Chicago White Sox feel that Alexi Ramirez is on the upswing.
 
The other five position players to get into 100 big-league games are: first basemen Juan Miranda, whose 111 games have been spread over three years with the New York Yankees and Arizona, and Barbaro Garbey, who played in the ’80s primarily with Detroit, and shortstops Rey Ordonez, Yuniesky Betancourt and Yunel Escobar.
 
Oakland’s previous biggest foray into the Cuban market was in 1995, when then-general manager Sandy Alderson overruled scouting director Dick Bogard, who was ready to select Tennessee first baseman Todd Helton with the team’s first-round draft pick, and ordered the selection instead of Cuban defector Ariel Prieto, who was pitching in an independent league and awaiting a major league contract.
 
Helton has become the face of the Colorado Rockies. Prieto went 15-24 with a  4.88 ERA in 67 appearances, 60 of which were starts, over a five-year period with Oakland.
 
The A’s are ready to take another shot. They are gambling on Cespedes to the amount of $36 million over four years, the biggest guarantee ever given a Cuban player. More than the money, Katz said, the key was the A’s agreeing that at the end of four years, Cespedes — who will be 30 at the time — can become a free agent.
 
“We wanted a contract that would either be the first and last one together (10 or more years) or one that would allow him to become a free agent at a young age,” said Katz.
 
What Cespedes wanted was a chance to play in the big leagues, which is what he will get with the A’s. The expectation is that he will work out most of this week and by next weekend be ready to make his exhibition debut. The hope is that he will be ready to be on the active roster by the time the A’s open their season March 27-28 against Seattle in Tokyo.
 
The A’s have diplomatically said that Cespedes projects in either center field or left field, but the expectation is he will take over in center, with Coco Crisp moving to left field, Josh Reddick serving as the primary right fielder and offseason addition Seth Smith serving in a part-time DH role for 50 games while Manny Ramirez completes his suspension for violating baseball’s drug program.
 
“I have confidence in myself,” Cespedes said with the help of interpreter Juan Navarette, a native of Mexico who played second base and is now the A’s coordinator of defense. “The pitchers have to throw the ball in the strike zone. … I am here to play baseball and do my best. If I have five or six days of batting practice, I will be ready.”
 
The first of those days came Sunday, and a couple of dozen fans cheered Cespedes as he took his first swings in an A’s uniform. He was in the same hitting group as Ramirez, whose name Cespedes mentioned quickly when the media asked him if there was a particular big-league player he admired from afar.
 
“I am happy to be on the same team as Manny,” he said. “I talked to him and he is friendly. He invited me to work with him and talk about hitting.”
 
And Ramirez wasted no time in starting the discussion.
 
As soon as he and Cespedes completed their batting-practice session, they grabbed their gloves and headed out to center field. In a matter of seconds, Ramirez was chatting about hitting, complete with the visuals of swing follow-throughs and strides.
 
It was a new adventure for Cespedes, who spent the last seven months working out in the Dominican Republic, where his mother, aunt and four cousins — who defected with him — remain.
 
“This is all new to him, and not just what he is facing on the baseball field,” said Beane. “He is going to need the support of the organization to adjust to living and playing. We had Prieto a few years ago, but he had been in the country already and had some exposure. We have to make sure that Yoenis has a chance to get comfortable and succeed.”
 
The A’s, after all, have $36 million invested.