Why passing on Cespedes makes sense

Monday’s news that highly touted free-agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes chose to sign with the Oakland Athletics is understandably unwelcome to a large segment of an Orioles fan base disgusted by 14 years of losing and underwhelmed by the club’s offseason personnel moves.

But if you look at Cespedes for what he is, it’s not so hard to understand why the Orioles weren’t willing to hand the Cuban defector a contract greater than the four-year, $36 million deal he reportedly received from the A’s.

What is Cespedes? A 26-year-old, extremely talented but unproven center fielder. He exhibits impressive athleticism and power, but there are also serious questions about his plate discipline and whether he’s ready to play in the major leagues in 2012.

And that, to me, is the heart of the issue. At 26, Cespedes is past the age at which he can earnestly be considered a prospect. He’s still relatively young, of course, but is entering the age range at which most hitters are supposed to peak. Having played predominantly in Cuba, Cespedes has spent the bulk of his key developmental years playing against talent far below the major league, or even top minor league, level (people who know much more about international baseball than I do say­ the Cuban National Series league is roughly the competitive equivalent of High-A ball).

A team offering Cespedes a $9 million-a-year deal is counting on his being ready to be an effective everyday major leaguer from Day One, and the Orioles apparently didn’t feel he was at that point. (Now, obviously, the Orioles could be wrong. A’s general manager Billy Beane clearly feels Cespedes is ready, and he has, perhaps you’ve heard, something of a track record in terms of successfully evaluating talent.)

Let’s look at things from another angle. As is custom, many have rushed to find a fitting major league comparison for Cespedes, and one of the players often offered up is the Orioles’ own Adam Jones. I haven’t seen enough of Cespedes — outside of his wildly entertaining Internet highlight videos — to know whether they’re truly similar players, but on the surface, the comparison makes sense. Both are 26, both are super athletic, both have impressive power potential, both need to improve their plate discipline.

But Jones, just two months older than Cespedes, already has four full major league seasons under his belt. He has already established himself as an All-Star and a Gold Glove center fielder (whether or not you believe he deserved those honors), and he’s still improving. That’s a rare and highly valuable player.

If all goes perfectly for him, Cespedes will come in and immediately be a player of Jones’ quality. It seems unreasonable to me to expect anything more of a player who hasn’t played on a competitive stage higher than the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

So, if you’re the Orioles — and you’re confident you’ll be able to sign Jones to a long-term extension — what’s to be gained from signing Cespedes to a four-year, $40 million deal (or whatever it would’ve taken to pry him away from Oakland)? It’s hard to envision Cespedes pushing Jones out of center field, so you’re now talking about a $9-10 million-a-year corner outfielder, and Cespedes would have to be highly productive to justify that salary (for comparison’s sake, Ryan Braun won’t earn $10 million in salary until 2014).

Unless you sign Cespedes and trade Jones. And while that’s an interesting idea — Jones would draw, and has drawn, plenty of interest on the trade market — it’s probably not realistic. Not only would the Orioles be counting on Cespedes to step right in and replace Jones’ production, but they would also be counting on another team to offer what they would demand in exchange for Jones — likely some combination of a couple of established major leaguers and several top prospects. The Orioles didn’t field a good enough offer for Jones to have moved him this offseason, so it’s hard to imagine any team coming forward and knocking their socks off after they signed Cespedes.

All this is not meant to give the Orioles a pass for not spending to markedly improve their team. There are several free agents I thought the Orioles should have pursued — some of whom they did pursue — who signed elsewhere. But in Cespedes’ case, there are a couple of reasons it didn’t make sense for the Orioles to commit big money to signing him.

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