The fact is, if a guy has never faced big league pitching, it’s hard to say he’s your classic “five-tool player." It’s probably one of the most overused and misused labels scouts place on young players. Why?
Of the five baseball “tools” for position players -- power, speed, defense, arm strength and hitting for average -- it is that last tool that often eludes young hitters. Until they show they can hit consistently and get on base in the major leagues against major league pitching, to me they are all just four-tool players. That’s where Cuban prospect Yoenis Cespedes is right now, and that’s the problem.
Because you don’t know unequivocally that he will hit major league pitching, it’s hard to know what kind of money and contract to offer Cespedes. It’s sort of like flying blind, and there is bona fide risk. But as a GM, I have to trust my scouts. And if Cincinnati Reds scouts can convince their ownership to give pitcher Aroldis Chapman $30.25 million last year based on his 101 mph fastball -- despite questions about his command of secondary pitches -- then it’s realistic that Cespedes will be offered a significant deal.
However, Cespedes has made it known he doesn’t want a deal similar to those given to previous Cuban position players, as he believes he is major league ready, and many scouts agree. Thus, Cespedes is looking for a major league free-agent market deal spanning five or six years. Something in the four-year, $32-40 million range would be appropriate.
Previous Cuban signees include center fielder Leonys Martin, who got a five-year, $15.5 million deal from Texas, and infielders Dayan Viciedo and Adeiny Hechavarria, who got four-year deals worth $10 million from the White Sox and Jays, respectively. Shortstop Jose Iglesias earned a smaller four-year deal worth $8.25 million. None were as close to the major leagues as Cespedes, though Martin reached the majors this season after just 73 minor league games.
Cespedes is clearly a cut above those players, and his contract will reflect that. If Chapman was the best pitcher to come out of Cuba thus far, likewise, Cespedes will be compensated just as handsomely or better, as the best position player from Cuba.
In regard to current MLB players, Cespedes could rank among the following in terms of annual average value, depending on the type of deal he gets:
Cespedes has set up temporary residence in the Dominican Republic after defecting, bringing his mother with him. Scouts say he is a good kid, respectful, a gentleman and doesn’t drink. A deal could be done within the next 10 days, with as many as 12 teams expressing interest. The front-runners are Toronto, the Washington Nationals and the Chicago Cubs. I wouldn’t be surprised that if Toronto signs Cespedes, it flips Colby Rasmus to the Royals.
Physically, Cespedes is impressive. Without a doubt, he is a baseball player through and through, but the 6-foot, 215-pound center fielder has fluid hips, explosive hands and strong forearms, and his power grades out to a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale (the Marlins’ Mike Stanton is probably an 80). Instead of working out for baseball scouts, he looks more like he should be at the NFL combine. He runs the 60-yard dash in 6.45 seconds, grading out to a 70 and reminding many of former Kansas City Royals star Bo Jackson.
He can play all three outfield positions, getting solid jumps and taking good angles on fly balls. He really gets after it and throws above average with some carry, grading out to about a 55.
There are no guarantees with toolsy players such as Wily Mo Pena -- they’ve got all the physical skills, but some just aren’t able to hit big league pitching. Any scout who says he knows for sure how Cespedes is going to do in the big leagues is lying. As a general manager, players like Cespedes will keep you up at night. As a workout player and batting cage hero, he’s a first-round type talent. If he hits, he’ll be a star. If he doesn’t, he’s the next Ruben Mateo.
Indeed, there’s some track record there with his performances for the Cuban national team, and he’s performed against quality pitching and has shown flashes he can handle velocity and good breaking balls despite his swing being a little long. He has exceptional hand-eye coordination. However, what will be important to measure is his depth perception. That allows a hitter to differentiate planes and adjust to velocity. To face 96 mph fastballs down and away or nasty breaking balls from the likes of Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw straight from the Cuban national team will be testing, to say the least.
The team signing Cespedes isn’t getting the next Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. or Prince Fielder, in terms of hitting. He will probably turn out more like Nelson Cruz or Vladimir Guerrero , who are certainly considerable talents, as well. But signing a relatively unknown commodity like Cespedes there always is risk whether the bat he’s bringing with him from Cuba will play in the United States.