Yoenis Cespedes and the Success of Cuban Players

The Yoenis Cespedes signing is at hand. The exciting Cuban defector is at most weeks, at least days, away from a payday with a major league ball club:

And according to Baseball America’s Jim Callis, Cespedes would instantly be the top prospect for 24 of the 30 franchises:

If Cespedes had signed, he would have ranked somewhere in the 10-15 range on my list. The only systems in which he wouldn’t be a slam-dunk No. 1 would be the Angels (Trout), Rays (Moore), Nationals (Harper), Rangers (Darvish), Mariners (Jesus Montero) and Orioles (Manny Machado).

(Tip o’ the hat to MLB Trade Rumors.)

But is all the hype really warranted? Is Cespedes really going to make an impact? Heck, is he even going to play on a major league club in 2012, or just work his way through the minors?

We cannot say for certain what the Future holds so greedily in its little secrets pouch, but we can delve into the grayish soup of history and at least make a guess. And my guess is we will both see Cespedes in 2012, and he will not be so bad maybe.

In my previous ruminations concerning Cespedes, one of the commenters humorously drew a comparison of Cespedes to Leslie Anderson, the first baseman in the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league system. Like Cespedes, Anderson is a Cuban defector, having signed in 2010 as a free agent. However, Anderson — though once considered a top prospect within the organization — will be 30 in 2012 and has a fart’s chance in the wind to escape Triple-A.

For most purposes, Anderson is an example the deception of Cuban statistics and the run environment of the Cuban National League (CNL). In 2008-2009 — Anderson’s final season before jumping the Gulf — he hit .381/.490/.572, a slash that was certainly electric, but at the same time not entirely unexpected because he never had an OBP beneath .390 and his SLG often hovered near or above .460.

Despite his Cuban success, Anderson has hit .288/.323/.414 in 623 Triple-A plate appearances. Granted, he has played just a season and change at Triple-A, but for a 29-year-old going on 30, he is hardly a prospect anymore.

But then there is also the case of Alexei Ramirez, shortstop extraordinaire. At age 26, two years younger than Anderson, Ramirez brought his equally crazy .329/.427/.532 slash and made it into a respectable .279/.323/.421 slash (respectable on the merit of his defense and position). Ramirez, who is the same age as Anderson, has 12.7 WAR in four seasons — and he is out-hitting Anderson who is at the Triple-A level.

So, what can we divine from these anecdotal relationships? First, we must admit that each player’s talent level needs to be ascertained on its own merit — Anderson’s CNL slash (so far) meant much less than Ramirez’s — Anderson hit better than Ramirez in the CNL, but worse in the MLB. Secondly, we must accept that the time-to-majors for each player is going to be different. Ramirez was on the opening day roster; Anderson started in Rookie League (despite being two years older than Ramirez had been).

If we look at all the Cuban defectors* in the league right now, we can see some loose patterns of how teams have handled Cuban exports over the last decade:

*It should be noted here that Alexei Ramirez does not consider himself a defector.

Active Cuban Players

NOTE: I would have preferred to include ALL Cuban free agents, but I could not find a comprehensive, reliable list. Please let me know if there is one out there.

Looking at all the currently active Cuban-born players, and then taking out those who entered via the draft (like Yonder Alonso), we can get a decent look at how and when teams sign these players. Granted, it is certainly a tango — a team cannot sign the player until they have defected and established residency, but teams are not forced to sign the player either.

Anyway, of those who have reached the majors, almost all were under 27 years old. Cespedes will be 26 through the 2012 season, so he fits the typical profile of the MLB-level Cuban free agent.

Active Cuban Players

Here we see Cespedes looking a little older than the curve, but this is more a product of young players needing to put in time rather than older players needing to season more.

If we put these two figures together, we reach this:

Active Cuban Players

It is important to note that 7 of the 23 active Cuban free agents hit the majors in their first year in the MLB. Among those 26 or older, it took an average of 1.6 years, while those 25 and younger averaged 1.7 years-to-majors — not a huge difference unless we ignore RP Raul Valdes (signed age 26, debuted age 32), which brings the average to just 1 year. (Why would we ignore him? We wouldn’t.)

So here’s the deal: Yoenis Cespedes is probably going to be making more than the $400K that Leslie Anderson has been getting annually, and Cespedes should even beat Ramirez’s $1.5M-ish salary when he broke through with the Chicago White Sox. If he gets the $6M annually I predicted based on Aroldis Chapman‘s initial contract, then he definitely plays in the majors in 2012. If he lands on a team like the Chicago Cubs — who are almost certainly out of contention — or some team without a center fielder, then he is a starting outfielder on day one, no question.

HOWEVER, looking at Anderson’s slash, looking at Ramirez’s slash, and then looking at Cespedes’s 2011 slash of .333/.424/.667, do we think he will hit well in the majors? Um, I would not wager American currency on the matter, that is certain.

It has been said that the CNL is around the level of competition of High-A ball, which is great and fine, except we have no idea what an elite player would look like if the Dictator of High-A ball forced said player to stay in High-A.

If Evan Longoria or Albert Pujols were trapped in High-A until they were both 28, what kind of stats would they have? We do not know. Perhaps the chief determinate of them becoming elite is that they have moved up levels and matured along the way? Or perhaps their talent would have continued to grow despite their weak competition? Maybe their ability, even if at it’s peak of awesomeness, would only be able to foil BABIP for so long? If they hit 70% line drives, they would still be making outs, so what would their slash look like? Who knows, it would be purely thought experiment to guess.

So, ultimately, it comes to this: We simply do not know how good Cespedes is. We know he is athletic, we know he has the tools to hit homers and to make contact, and we suspect he is a good fielder, but we have no means for certain of knowing how he will fare in the MLB. But, if the hype is any indication of the contract he will receive, I think we can say for certain we will know soon enough.

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

19 Responses to “Yoenis Cespedes and the Success of Cuban Players”

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  1. AL Eastbound says:

    Good read, I think it is the egos of the various teams thinking they can get the most out of the player, like a pitching re-tread. This one feels extra risky given the rumoured demands.

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  2. Yirmiyahu says:

    This has nothing to do with anything, but how is Montero still one of the top 6 prospects in baseball? He’s a DH who hit for a .356 wOBA last year, and .366 over the last two years.

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    • Steve says:

      I am not a prospect maven, but a lot of it probably has to do with being 100% MLB ready. There are probably prospects who project to be better players but are further away, so they get downgraded for that.

      Even his distractors are sold on his bat. Impact bat, major league ready? Even at DH, that is a top prospect.

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  3. Richie says:

    “Fare”, not “fair’”. I think.

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  4. Torpedero says:

    I give Cespedes career stats of a Nelson Cruz, very similar bodies and skills. He’s a player in Cuba who’s known to chase bad balls and often pulls. He might also just turn out to be a .300 AVG and 40 HR guy…who knows

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  5. RobM says:

    Based on the money he’s going to get, this guy is going to be a bust.

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  6. Ronin says:

    I would much rather gamble on Prince Fielder than Cespedes, or any Cuban league player for that matter.

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  7. bdunn20 says:

    So I guess that means we know the top 7 players in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects?

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  8. Anthony says:

    Did anybody watch the cespedes video? I did, and as impressive as he was, be didn’t jump over a car. I saw Joey gathright jump over a car, yoenis is no Joey gathright

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  9. J says:

    Kendrys Morales?
    I don’t know about a comprehensive list, but he’s Cuban.

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  10. CARLOS says:

    Theres a fact, Cespedes played at DR winters league back in december.
    What i witness is, Cespedes isnt ready yet for MLB pitching.
    He has problems with sliders, braking balls and his bat was slow to 94/95
    MPH fast balls.he faced a AA pitcher level.

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