Friday, August 1, 2014

Checking Out Cespedes

In Cespedes, Boston has one of baseball's most intriguing talents (SportsOutWest)
The Red Sox unloaded what felt like half their roster yesterday, trading away their two best starting pitchers, an ace reliever, their starting shortstop and half of their left field platoon, all after they'd already dealt two starting pitchers earlier in the week. But rather than netting a haul of prospects as many anticipated, Boston surprisingly got back established major league talent, which Ben Cherington explained as the first steps in retooling the roster to be competitive again in 2015.

Boston's shiniest new addition is Yoenis Cespedes*--an All-Star this year and winner of the last two home run derbies--acquired for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes. Blessed with monster power, solid baserunning skills and a cannon for a right arm, Cespedes is one of the best all-around outfielders in baseball. A poor man's Giancarlo Stanton, if you will. And at 28, he's squarely in his prime, something the Red Sox can't say about too many of their players.

*(How much does it suck to be Cespedes right now? To be traded off the best team in baseball, an outfit that stands a great chance to win the World Series three months from now, to a last-place team with the third-worst record in the American League and no hope of making the playoffs. I'd be pissed).

In just his third major league season, Cespedes is still growing and maturing as a ballplayer, still making adjustments as he tries to translate his enormous raw abilities into the huge numbers they're capable of producing. While his offense has taken a step back since his rookie season, he's cut down on his strikeouts this year and has fashioned himself into a better defender (the Red Sox plan to try him in right with Shane Victorino on the DL again) Cespedes has the tools to be a star, an MVP even, but most think of him the way they think of Justin Upton or Desmond Jennings--a gifted outfielder who hasn't put it all together yet.

Cespedes came close in 2012, when he burst onto the scene as a 26 year-old rookie on a four-year, $36 million deal with the Oakland A's. He made an immediate impact, helping the A's go from 74 wins the year before his arrival to 94 wins and a division title in his very first season. Cespedes was a key offensive contributor who smashed 23 home runs, drove home 82, stole 16 bases in 20 attempts and batted .292/.356/.505, good for a .368 wOBA and 139 OPS+.

A four-win player, Cespedes would have been an easy choice for Rookie of the Year under normal circumstances, but 2012 was destined to be remembered for the historic rookie seasons of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. With the vast majority of attention and praise showered on the younger phenoms, Cespedes was runner-up to Trout in the AL Rookie of the Year race--no shame in that--and earned a 10th place finish in the MVP voting as well. His future seemed bright, and he was so highly regarded at the time that some thought he'd win an MVP as soon as 2013.

Since then, however, his progression has stalled. He walked less and struck out more in 2013, exactly the opposite of what one hopes to see from a second-year big leaguer. While Cespedes still produced potent power numbers with 26 home runs, 80 RBI and a .202 ISO, his batting average tumbled more than 50 points while his OBP and SLG both dropped by over 60, resulting in a 124-point decline in OPS that effectively reduced him into a league average bat. Blame it on the dreaded sophomore slump, pitchers figuring him out or an early season thumb injury that sent him to the DL and may have affected his swing; whatever the reason, his follow-up campaign was a disappointment.

This year has been better, though still nowhere near as good as his impressive rookie campaign.  To be fair, his numbers are still suppressed somewhat by his 3-for-45 skid leading up to the All-Star Break, a funk from which he's recovered by batting .326 with three home runs and 11 RBI since the Midsummer Classic. But that's just the kind of hitter he is--streaky.

He's also somewhat injury prone, having spent time on the Disabled List in each of his first two seasons. He's remained healthy this year, playing all but six of Oakland's games before the trade and avoiding the Disabled List thus far (knock on wood). On pace to play a full season for the first time after missing 60 games with assorted injuries between 2012 and 2013, he'll likely finish the season with career highs in most offensive counting stats.

Of course, he's a good bet to improve upon those numbers next year provided he's still with the Sox. Moving away from the cavernous Coliseum to Fenway's friendly confines should boost his numbers considerably, especially his average and by extension his on-base percentage. No way he hits .250 again with a .300 OBP next year--he's probably closer to .275/.330. Those numbers could be conservative estimates, seeing as how he nearly batted .300 as a rookie and might become more patient with age as he gains better strike zone recognition. It's interesting that his career OPS has been almost 100 points higher in Oakland than on the road, but since most players hit better at home that doesn't mean much. Switching from one of baseball's worst parks for hitters to one of its best should, in theory, boost his stats considerably.

Letting Cespedes take aim at the Monster 81 times a year has to be a salivating prospect for the Red Sox. Cespedes was already worth three wins above replacement for the A's in three-fifths of a season. putting him on pace to be close to a five-win player this year. Assuming he at least stays the same, he should be good for another four to five wins next year, possibly more if he really takes off and hits his stride at Fenway, which should be easy for a fly ball hitter currently lifting over half his batted balls into the air, many of which will scrape off or clear the wall. It's easy to envision him hitting 30 homers for the first time, driving in close to 100 runs, and posting an OPS well over .800. He's not going to hit like Manny Ramirez, but he could have a season comparable to one of Jason Bay's better ones (remember him?).

Even if Cespedes stays what he is--a .250 hitter with 25 home run pop and a .300 OBP--that's still an upgrade over the Gomes/Daniel Nava tandem in left. He's also a better defender than either one and a better baserunner, too. Furthermore, he adds a hefty dose of power to a lineup, and in particular an outfield, that craves it. Boston currently ranks 12th in the American League in home runs and 13th in slugging, largely because its outfielders have combined to hit 14 home runs (Cespedes currently has 17). With Cespedes on board, you can bet that won't be the case next year.

But what about after next year? Cespedes is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2015 season, and the Red Sox will not be able to offer him a qualifying offer. Suffice it to say, Cespedes is going to command a lot more than the $10.5 million he's making this year and next. As one of the few impact power bats availabe and a relatively young free agent at 30, Cespedes could easily land a nine-figure deal if her performs well in Boston. Given Red Sox ownership's recent aversion to spending lavishly for players on the wrong side of 30, it's hard to imagine them paying what it would take to keep him around.

But Boston's baseball ops can cross that bridge when they get to it. For now, they should be patting themselves on the back for getting almost a year and a half of Cespedes for Gomes and two months of Lester. Cespedes addresses their biggest hole--outfield power--and possesses the kind of game-changing talent that simultaneously improves their lineup and outfield defense. And he still has room to grow.

Cespedes is a fairly expensive project, but as far as projects go he's a pretty good one to have.

No comments:

Post a Comment