The Oakland Athletics stunned the baseball world earlier this week when the team signed the untried Yoennis Cespedes to a 4-year, $36 million contract. Cespedes’ only experience against major league pitching came during the World Baseball Classic where he hit .428 in 24 at bats. In Cuba last year, Cespedes hit 33 home runs in 90 games. Who knows how that translates into a realistic ability to hit in the big time?
The WBC and the Cuban League aren’t the major leagues. While the scouts go crazy over Cespedes and what they view as his can’t miss future, my own thinking is tempered by the opinions of two former big league stars, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Steve Blass.
Schmidt says that there’s no jump harder to make in professional sports than the move up from AAA to the majors. Blass adds that it’s one thing to “make” the big league roster but a different thing altogether to “perform” once you get there. Some note that neither the WBC or the Cuban League approach AAA talent-wise.
Cespedes will begin his Athletics’ career in the minors. There he might run into another international signing, a former “can’t miss” prospect who looks like—well, he may miss. In 2008, the As signed 6’7” 16-year-old Dominican Michael Ynoa for $4.25 million. General manager Billy Beane predicted that Ynoa’s blazing fastball would dominate hitters for years to come. Ynoa pitched nine innings of rookie ball in 2010 before blowing out his arm and undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Another multimillion dollar Cuban defector, Aroldis Chapman, is still in his formative stages. In parts of two seasons for the Cincinnati Reds, Chapman has shown improvement.
Last summer, Chapman threw a 105 mile fastball that Reds’ fans are still talking about
But here’s what pitching great Sal Maglie said in Sports Illustrated in 1958 about pitchers who plan to make their livings with fastballs:
With nothing but a real good fastball, a pitcher can be a winner in high school and college, on the sandlots and even in the minor leagues. But no one—not even a Herb Score or a Bob Feller —can consistently throw the ball past major league hitters. The guys you run into here are just too good for that.
Maybe without his injury Ynoa would be dominant by now. Cespedes might end up in the Hall of Fame. Long-term investments in any young player are risky. But the odds shift in the general manager’s favor if that player has come up through familiar venues familiar, e.g. college campuses and organized American minor leagues.
If you read my earlier, politically incorrect post about Yu Darvish and the extravagant contract that the Texas Rangers bestowed on him, you won’t be surprised to learn that I view the Cespedes deal with extreme skepticism. I’d like to see more American kids get shots.
As a result of lifting the visa cap for professional athletes, the minor leagues are currently made up of nearly 50 percent foreign-born players.
The new, lax visa regulations add another layer of difficulty for American teens hoping to make the big leagues. Instead of signing hundreds of U.S. high school or college amateurs, historically the business model for stocking minor-league rosters, today teams draft fewer U.S. kids and instead ink more so-called non-draft free agents, the majority young Latin Americans. One reason: the marginal players are cheaper.
Oneri Fleita, the Chicago Cubs minor league player development director explained:
There is no longer a limit on work visas. So, yeah, you might see more foreign players getting an opportunity.
Globalism is good for owners, the players signed to the multimillion dollar deals and for fans if their teams’ players make it big. For the American kid hoping to make his mark, globalism makes his already difficult task nearly impossible.