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Cuban Céspedes a Cactus League curiosity

by Matt Smith

Oakland A'sSaturday will be an exciting day for Oakland A’s fans.

Their team’s new Cuban outfielder Yoenis Céspedes is set to make his Spring Training debut against the Cincinnati Reds at 20.05 GMT, with the game being covered live on MLB.TV.

Céspedes was one of the most intriguing free agents of the recent offseason. He had starred in the Cuban baseball league and for his national team before defecting to the Dominican Republic last year to follow his dream of playing in the Major Leagues.

Cuban players always fascinate in part because of that journey, whether from a symbolic point of view, a literal point of view or both. Orlando Hernández epitomized this better than any other, fleeing his homeland by crossing shark-infested waters on a little boat before signing for the New York Yankees.

When he made his debut on 3 June 1998, we were given the first chance to see whether the tales of El Duque’s excellence back home amounted to myth or reality. There is always an element of discovery when a prospect starts competing at the Major League level, but with Cuban exports this is increased ten-fold. You just don’t know how good they will be or how easily they will be able to adapt to a completely different culture in North America. 

In Hernández’s case, he made good on the tales of his excellent pitching back home by helping the Yankees to three consecutive World Series championships between 1998 and 2000 and pitched in MLB until 2007, earning a fourth ring in 2005 with the White Sox.

It will be fascinating to watch Céspedes over the next few years as he attempts to prove that the claims of him being an elite-level talent are fully merited. The expectations are high. Rumours suggest that there were a lot of teams that believed in his ability and wanted to sign him and the delightfully mad 20 minute promotional video that was published on YouTube during the bidding war has added to the hype.

This isn’t your usual clean-cut, U.S. college prospect making his way to the Majors following the traditional route (which itself can be extremely exciting, as Stephen Strasburg showed most recently). There’s a sense of the unknown and an unpredictability about it all that is so often absent from professional sports these days.

That unpredictability was highlighted by the A’s beating everyone else to Céspedes’ signature on a four-year, $36m contract. Oakland had spent the rest of the offseason trading away their best pitchers and further tightening the purse strings as part of yet another rebuilding project.

They hadn’t been mentioned as one of the many contenders; however the A’s had tabled a significant offer to the previous big Cuban free agent on the market, pitcher Aroldis Chapman, so maybe we all shouldn’t have been quite so surprised.

Oakland has great trouble in attracting Major League free agents, for reasons ranging from money to their prospects of being a postseason contender and their run-down ballpark.

International free agents therefore present a rare opportunity for the A’s to use what money they have to acquire star-level talent. Other teams that can afford tried-and-tested Major Leaguers are more likely to spend their money that way rather than on a potentially risky international player, but the A’s don’t have that choice. They take on the risk that the player won’t pan out because the potential rewards are much greater than what they could achieve otherwise on the free agent market.

From the player’s perspective, they can offer a very good, if not spectacular, payday and most importantly a chance for that player to showcase their talents and earn another big contract.

The A’s reportedly were the only team prepared to offer the 26 year old a four-year contract rather than locking the player up on a longer term deal. The attractiveness of this for Céspedes is that he can now become a free agent again while he is still in his prime at 30 years old. If he stars for the A’s – and considering the A’s trading habits, quite possibly for another team too – during that period then he will be in line for a huge payday over the 2015/16 offseason.

Whether he stars or not will be determined over the next few years. His opening Spring Training appearance is certainly not going to offer many answers to that question, but that doesn’t make his debut any less appealing.

We don’t know how Céspedes’ journey will turn out, but the immense hype surrounding him means that it will be worth watching – for good or bad – and that journey begins on Saturday against the Reds.

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