Is Yoennis Cespedes the Next Step for Marlins?

The Miami Marlins have completed many tasks during this offseason. The club has tentatively improved their rotation by a smidgen by signing Mark Buehrle (essentially replacing the presumably-retired Javier Vazquez) and trading for Carlos Zambrano. The club has filled its third base gap by signing shortstop Jose Reyes and sliding Hanley Ramirez to third base (a move that he perhaps finally approved recently).

So the 2012 Marlins are almost set, and if you buy into the rough projections I posted a few weeks back, you could see them right now as anywhere between an 80- to 85-win team. The most recent iteration of the CAIRO projected standings as published by SG over at the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog has the Marlins at almost 82 wins without the addition of Zambrano. Given the possibility of the second Wild Card being implemented in 2012, the upper area of that projection is a bit below where a team would have to be to win the second playoff spot.

Should the Marlins be content with that? Apparently they may not yet be finished, as MLB.com's Joe Frisaro reports that the team will be a player in the Yoennis Cespedes sweepstakes. We have heard numerous reports that the Marlins were the favorite, but that there was a rift in the front office regarding pursuing the 26-year old Cuban center fielder. What are the Marlins expecting to get out of the Cuban prospect and scouting video sensation?

A Scout's Take

We have heard a lot about Cespedes, and a good majority has come from the work of Baseball Prospectus's prospect guru Kevin Goldstein. Last month, he and Baseball Prospectus Fantasy overlord Derek Carty highlighted the major points about Cespedes's game, and it is worth revisiting now that he is so close to attaining free agency (Frisaro reports that the tentative date would be January 15).

Here are some of the positive highlights of Cespedes's game.

Cespedes has plenty of tools. Cespedes’ calling card is his ability to drive a ball a mile; he is tied as Cuba’s single-season home run leader. One scout said his raw power approaches an 80 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale, and his speed might not be far behind. You wouldn’t know by his modest stolen-base totals, but the aforementioned scouting video shows Cespedes running a 6.3-second 60-yard dash (which qualifies for an 80 grade), but scouts tell me that he’s more often in the 6.4- or 6.5-second range.

That is some high praise for a player who apparently was not on many radars in 2009 in the last World Baseball Classic. A "true 80" grade in the scouting 20-80 scale implies that Cespedes's power is three standard deviations above the mean (50 on the scale). Such a grade would put him among the elites of power hitting in baseball, equivalent to players like our own Mike Stanton and Washington Nationals uber-prospect Bryce Harper. The speed grade is equally impressive, as a 70-plus grade on that scale probably puts him around the level of Coco Crisp. Both grades would be well above average and worth watching in-game.

There seem to be two difficulties with Cespedes's game. One is apparently his lack of plate discipline.

Despite tremendous tools (which also include plus bat speed), those I spoke with gave Cespedes’ approach at the plate mixed reviews. While some like it, others believe he’s too aggressive and a bit of a free-swinger. That’s not to say he has a bad eye, but more likely, comes from a belief that he can hit anything. Despite this, Cespedes doesn’t strike out that much, which one scout attributed to his aggressiveness early in the count and his ability to compensate for mistakes with his good bat speed.

The idea that he swings all too freely but does not strike out a lot due to strong contact and his natural bat speed reminds me a lot of Texas Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre. For his post-2002 career, he has swung at 51.3 percent of pitches and done so fairly consistently. He also has struck out in only 15 percent of his PA for his career, with those numbers going down as he has aged. He is also walking less frequently, which fits the scouting bill that Cespedes supposedly has. Of course, for every Beltre, there may be quite a number of guys who never make the major league adjustments necessary to survive in a free-swinging fashion, so there is caution to be had. Still, it is nice to see at least one example of a successful major leaguer who has had this sort of plate discipline profile.

The other problem is one that the Marlins are all too familiar with: apparently Cespedes has some "makeup issues," and we are not talking about the foundation he puts on in the mornings. He too is a bit of a head case and an ego trip apparently, and he would be joining a team already loaded with their fair share of odd personalities. The 2012 Marlins are not necessarily low on problematic players, but there is where the advantage of manager Ozzie Guillen may come into play. Once again, if there was a manager who could screw some heads on appropriately and command some respect from players, Hispanic or otherwise, it would be Guillen. Managing conflicts with troubling personalities is one of the major reasons why the Fish acquired Guillen in the first place.

Money Talks

In the linked piece, Frisaro also had something to say about the cost of acquiring Cespedes's services.

A couple of months ago, it was believed Cespedes was seeking an eight-year deal worth more than $60 million. Several teams have backed away from that number, and a source said Cespedes’ cost appears to be coming down.

More realistic numbers are four years in the $32 million range, the source said.

A four-year deal would get the outfielder to age 30, and he then could test the market again.

More than anything else, this could be the reason why the Fish remain major players on the Cespedes front. The initial eight-year deal was understandably difficult for most teams, as there was some natural doubt about signing a relative unknown to a major-league deal for that long and committing so much money to the pot. Cespedes is physically impressive, but there are obvious flaws to his game as listed above. However, Frisaro's source's number of four years and $32 million is highly favorable for a variety of reasons.

- The Marlins or any other team that signs him would be committing $8 million a season to a player who, despite concerns, should be a major-league quality player by the midway point in 2012. That is an affordable price for a free agent starting contributor; an $8 million deal expects an average of 1.8 Wins Above Replacement per year over the life of the deal.

- The signing club would be committing fewer years than initially suggested.

- I am unsure about this, but I believe that if Cespedes signs for four years, the signing team would still control his rights for another two seasons after that. This may be the biggest benefit of a shorter-term deal, as it gives the signing team essentially two team-option years at higher prices if the club is so inclined. Rather than signing away those team-controlled seasons, the Marlins or any other team would retain the option of letting him go if he is a bust or controlling him for a few seasons before letting him walk or making an extension offer.

Given the above listed price and the upside potential, Cespedes should be someone the Marlins go after. At a four-year deal, the Fish have little to lose, and the team can fill the center field position temporarily as Cespedes warms to North American play in the minors. Once he is ready, the team would then have a deep bench with Emilio Bonifacio and Bryan Petersen moving to permanent bench roles that are likely more suitable for them. Suddenly, the Fish would have a very deep bench and be able to fill in for injuries a little more flexibly.

All in all, the Marlins are in a prime position with Cespedes to make a signing that should improve the club marginally in 2012 and have the potential of significant impact in the years to come. A signing would keep him as part of the team's core beyond 2014 if he develops well and the club chooses to go that route. The Marlins should more than consider this signing when Cespedes becomes a free agent soon.

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