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May 13, 2013
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
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May 13, 2013

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

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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 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."

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