Oakland's gamble on Yoenis Cespedes paying off
Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 10:34 p.m.
PHOENIX - Jerry Blevins has played for the Oakland Athletics since September 2007, longer than anyone else likely to make the roster this season. His experience has taught him the essential lesson of life with the A's.
“I've learned not to question what Billy Beane and the organization do,” said Blevins, a left-handed reliever, “because even when you think you've got a grasp of it, you have no idea what's going on.”
A decade after Beane, the Athletics' general manager, found an edge in statistical analysis, he snagged a franchise centerpiece last season by outbidding his competitors for a bargain-priced star. If that seems incongruous, well, remember what Blevins said.
Last winter, the Athletics spent $36 million for four years to sign outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who defected to the Dominican Republic from Cuba in 2011. By the end of his rookie season, Cespedes was the best player for the A's, the American League West champions, hitting .292 with 23 home runs and 16 stolen bases. He led Oakland's regulars in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and he offers the promise for more.
“As far as I'm concerned, he hasn't even come close to his potential yet,” said Chili Davis, Oakland's hitting coach. “He's a powerful guy, he's smart, he's got great hands, and I know he works hard. So the more he applies the work that he does pregame into the actual games, he's going to become a better hitter and should become just a force for this ball club.”
Cespedes, 27, had been a star in Cuba, hitting .458 at the 2009 World Baseball Classic. His reputation preceded him to the majors with a 20-minute YouTube video that opened with scrolling text, Star Wars style, and called him “A New Hope.”
Cespedes not only hit, ran and threw in the video but also performed 45-inch vertical leaps and 1,300-pound leg presses.
The intent was to showcase the explosive burst of a running back with the specialized skills of a ballplayer, and 15 teams expressed interest to his agent, Adam Katz. The A's were among them.
“They weren't one of the intense, early teams,” Katz said. “But they were hanging around. Everybody was waiting to see where it would go.”
With established superstars out of Oakland's reach, Cespedes represented a tantalizing gamble. The A's had scouting reports on him from international tournaments, but Beane, naturally, also had numbers that forecast success.
He trusted those figures and made the deal, which exceeded the richest contract on the team's payroll by almost $20 million.
“We were able to use some statistical translations that assisted us,” Beane said. “It wasn't a lot of data, but we had some data that gave us some hope. It at least made you feel like we weren't completely flying without a net.”
Beane did not meet Cespedes before agreeing to the contract. For his part, Cespedes said through an Oakland coach and interpreter, Ariel Prieto, that he knew nothing at all about the franchise he was joining.
But Cespedes showed instantly that with his talent and advanced instincts — his mother had been a softball star on the Cuban national team — he could adapt to the major league game. In spring training, manager Bob Melvin said, Cespedes made adjustments from one at-bat to the next.
“He'd swing at a breaking ball away off a certain guy,” Melvin said, “and next time up, he's looking for that breaking ball and knowing where it starts and knowing where to lay off it. And he did that as the season went along, too.”
Evaluators often compliment a hitter by saying the ball sounds different coming off his bat, and Melvin apologized for the overused expression. But it was true, he insisted, adding that the louder thump Cespedes generated came from extraordinary bat speed and strength.
In batting practice, Cespedes sometimes aims for the distant third deck at the Coliseum.
Reliever Pat Neshek said he never saw Cespedes reach it, but he often peppered balls off the windows of the suites just below.
He also impressed teammates with tricks.
“He'll hit balls out with the doughnut still on the bat,” Neshek said. “He does that all the time.”
Neshek compared Cespedes to the Angels' Mike Trout, for his ability to change a game with his power and speed. And like Trout, Cespedes is a center fielder who has learned to play left field, which is less taxing on the body.
Playing primarily in left as the season wore on, Cespedes improved his average, hitting .263 before the All-Star break and .311 after.
Prieto, who pitched five seasons for the A's after leaving Cuba in 1995, shared a house with Cespedes last season. Mostly, he said, Cespedes was quiet; he enjoyed watching soap operas and eating steak, whiling away hours till the next game or workout.
“I put all my effort into trying to make him feel better in this country, because over here at the field, it's easy,” Prieto said.
“When you're here, you feel like family. But when you're out of the field, you don't know what you're going to do.”
For Cespedes, last season played out against the backdrop of his family's effort to join him in the United States. Several relatives, including his mother, were reportedly arrested as illegal immigrants in the Turks and Caicos Islands in early October. They were released from a detention center this month, and Cespedes left camp to meet them in Miami for a brief and joyous reunion.
“He tried to keep all the family issues out of his mind,” Prieto said, interpreting for Cespedes. “But at the same time, when he got some bad news that the family had some problems, he tried to be focused, but it was hard for him. This year, he thinks he's going to play more relaxed, with better concentration because he knows his family is here.”
Cespedes said he also wanted to bring his young son, Yoenis Jr., to the United States when he had the chance. But with more peace of mind and fewer on-field adjustments, he seems likely to continue making Beane's $36 million gamble seem inspired.
“Listen, in our marketplace, we have to take a different approach than anybody else,” Beane said, “or we're probably destined to fail miserably.”
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