Signing Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes was a gamble the small-budget Oakland Athletics had to take
If money bought championships, the New York Yankees would be 13-time defending World Series champions. And the Baltimore Orioles – yes, the Orioles were the last team to outspend the Yankees on opening day, $70.4 million to $63.2 million in 1998 – wouldn't be so starved for a title. Of course, money doesn't buy championships, and anyone who subscribes to such a view need only recall the Mets and Cubs of recent years.
What money does buy is opportunities that those without money never sniff. The opportunity to go after frontline free agents and the nine-figure salaries they command. The opportunity to blow one of those signings and shed it like a cicada does its exoskeleton. The opportunity to bomb a few drafts and buy their way out of a talent drought through free agency. The opportunity to execute a deadline trade if it might make the difference between an October at the ballyard or on the couch.
Cuban league home-run champ Yoenis Cespedes possesses the type of raw power few hitters on the planet can match.
2012 projected payroll
* Source: Baseball Prospectus
Which brings us to Monday's signing of Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes for four years and $36 million by the Oakland Athletics, one of those teams that decidedly does not have money. It shocked the industry because these are the A's, the low-budget, bootleg-ballpark, needed-to-move-five-years-ago A's, and their highest-paid player was Coco Crisp at $6 million.
Except that this makes so much sense we should've seen it coming. When the mega-free agent is out of a team's reach, it has to play the margins, to hunt for impact players elsewhere. To, for those who really want to simplify it, do what "Moneyball" espoused. More than three years ago, the A's gave $4.25 million to a 16-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic named Michael Inoa. They hoped to turn high-upside talent from Latin America into six controllable major-league seasons. Inoa blew out his elbow two years later.
Cespedes, 26, represents something different altogether, the seared ahi tuna of ballplayers: done on the outside but completely raw on the inside. He is a 6-foot, 220-pound brick house, a viral-video star with some substance to back up the hoopla. Cespedes holds a Cuban league record for home runs – one that may be broken by Alfredo Despaigne this year, but still – and possesses in-game power rivaled by few in the world. He is going to strike out a ton, and the center fielder's athleticism is better suited for right field, and O.co Coliseum might make a mortal out of Babe Ruth.
But he could be special. And special costs a whole lot more than $36 million.
With Cespedes, Oakland's payroll is likely to creep from lowest in baseball to second-lowest, according to an analysis of contract data at Baseball Prospectus. They stand at around $51 million, about $5 million more than where the Pittsburgh Pirates are expected to be if they complete a trade for A.J. Burnett.
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It's not just the Yankees on the opposite end anymore, either. In 2012, 11 teams are expected to carry payrolls of $100 million or more, according to the analysis, and three more teams will be around $98 million. The average payroll in baseball this season will be about $97.3 million.
When the average team is spending almost double what the A's will – and when the Los Angeles Angels are nearly three times as much and the Texas Rangers more than twice as much – Oakland almost is duty-bound to gamble on players like Cespedes. And because of his flaws, there is significant bust potential. One scout who tracked Cespedes throughout his Cuban league career worries about his troubles with breaking balls, something magnified during his short stint playing in the Dominican Winter League.
Granted, Cespedes was rusty. Because of the length of the deal – it was designed to return him to free agency as a 30-year-old – he'll have no time to scrape it away at Triple-A. The A's intend to start Cespedes in the major leagues as their everyday right fielder, according to a source, and ensure they reap every bit of the $36 million.
It's a shame the teams that can least afford to take risks have to take the biggest, though it's not like a salary cap is the great equalizer in the other professional sports. There are still haves and have-nots in football, basketball and hockey, and always will be. When baseball's new collective-bargaining agreement essentially robbed teams of the ability to spend big money in the draft and internationally, it stole one more way for the low-revenue teams to even the playing field.
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Low payrolls and victories are not by any means mutually exclusive. Look at the Tampa Bay Rays today. Or, yes, the Oakland Athletics of the 2000s. That's what the A's are aiming for: replenish their farm system through a number of trades, nurture them through a couple losing seasons and start winning again come 2014 and 2015, when Cespedes hopefully has conquered the difficulty of the major leagues and is a megastar at a reasonable price.
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Signing him didn't make as much sense for the Yankees or the Rangers or any other big-payroll team. They have money. They need not use their opportunities on something so chancy.
The A's did because they had to. Because in this marketplace, with their situation, giving $36 million to a kid who hasn't taken a single major-league at-bat is about the only way the A's can carve that path to contention.
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