Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes hitless in winter ball debut, possibly jeopardizing elite status

Published: Friday, January 13, 2012, 1:00 PM

By James Schmehl |

Major League clubs had their first opportunity to scout Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes in winter ball Thursday — and likely walked away unimpressed.

Cespedes went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts, serving as the designated hitter in his debut for the Aguilas Cibaeñas. He was hit by a pitch in his fourth plate appearance in a 6-4 loss to the Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican League playoffs.

Cespedes reportedly displayed patience in his first at-bat, drawing a 3-1 count after taking the first four pitches before fouling off an inside fastball and whiffing on a breaking ball. But, the power-hitting outfielder struck out on three straight pitches in his next two at-bats.

My take? It’s silly to suggest Thursday’s performance will hurt Cespedes’ stock.

Baseball is a forgiving sport. Cespedes is expected to have another four-plate appearance tonight against Leones del Escogido, which features Tigers outfielder Andy Dirks. If he has a one- or two-hit showing, all is forgotten.

That being said, it’s difficult to see what Cespedes is gaining by playing winter ball. He’s drawn interest from a half-dozen clubs this season, including the Tigers, and bidding on the 26-year-old was already expected to eclipse $30-plus million.

Still, a handful of clubs have expressed reluctance to bid on Cespedes because of the element of mystery surrounding Cuban defectors. Plenty of defectors, including Leonys Martin, Alay Soler and Aroldis Chapman have not lived up to expectations in the majors.

Perhaps winter ball was an opportunity for Cespedes to silence the doubters.

It’s also possible that Cespedes’ agent, Adam Katz, recommended winter ball for his client after recent reports suggested Cespedes’ asking price was too high. A couple months ago, it was believed Katz sought an eight-year deal worth more than $60 million. That number has since fallen to a four-year deal around $32 million.

Perhaps winter ball was an opportunity for Cespedes to raise his own stock.

Regardless, the decision to play this offseason is a high-risk decision that could dramatically affect his status as a soon-to-be free agent. Clubs that initially saw Cespedes as a Major League-ready outfielder worthy of a multi-year deal, might soon view him as an overpriced prospect in need of Triple-A tuning.

Cespedes, who batted at least .323 in the past four seasons in Cuba, has held private workouts for clubs, but hasn’t played in a competitive game environment since last April in Cuba. The Dominican Winter League now serves as an audition for Cespedes — an attempt to showcase his five-tool skills to Major League clubs.

He’s proven his talent in Cuba, but an adjustment will be required in the majors. Can he separate himself from all previous position players who have defected from Cuba over the past two decades?

Meanwhile, the Aguilas Cibaeñas have now lost seven of its past eight games in the round-robin semifinal tournament and remain in last place. The club is virtually eliminated from earning a spot in the finals after Thursday’s loss.


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