- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
It certainly has been a strange offseason for the Oakland Athletics. They seem to be rebuilding quite nicely, moving several key pitchers for prospects, yet they've also managed to sign the likes of veterans Bartolo Colon and Jonny Gomes. On Monday, the Athletics surprised the baseball world by agreeing to a four-year contract with coveted Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, making the 26-year-old slugger the team's highest-paid player. While it should take years to know whether the substantial financial commitment is wise, fantasy owners want to know what to expect in 2012.
I blogged about the much-hyped Cespedes a few weeks ago, noting that there were two problems in analyzing his immediate fantasy value. One of those has been solved, as we know his destination; he's with the Athletics, not the Miami Marlins, Chicago Cubs or another team. In sheer terms of what joining the A's means, let's just say it's not even close to the best place for a slugger to land, especially one unproven at the highest level. Josh Willingham managed to smack 29 home runs with the A's last season, but no other Athletics hitter reached 15. Further, O.co Coliseum, home of the Athletics, was one of the toughest ballparks to hit a home run in last season.
The other issue I wrote about hasn't changed: Determining major league projections for a player who wows scouts in batting practice and statistically in Cuba's leagues can be problematic. Don't even look at the gaudy numbers he has produced in the past. We know this is a player with the potential for power and speed, but he's almost certainly going to need to spend time in the minor leagues. As a result, drafting Cespedes in a 10- or 12-team mixed league becomes just as risky as choosing top prospects such as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. They're considerably younger and brimming with potential, but playing time is hardly assured.
In the late rounds, especially in a shallow league, the risk in drafting Cespedes is lessened. Stash him on your bench for as long as it takes and see what happens. Chances are pretty good I won't be the guy choosing that path, in part because in every league someone will be willing to draft him earlier. Outfield is a deep position in fantasy this season, and as I wrote recently there are at least 45 outfielders I'd choose first, even ones sans major upside such as Nick Markakis, Andre Ethier, Michael Cuddyer or Jeff Francoeur, and that's even if Cespedes dominates in spring training. In a keeper league, I'd certainly choose him earlier, but again, let's not anoint Cespedes a lock for stardom.
A right-handed hitter who scouts have raved about in terms of power, the Athletics shouldn't be in a great hurry to rush him to the majors. In a way, even though roughly seven years of age separates them, there are general similarities between Cespedes and Harper in terms of when they could be summoned. They're both going to help sell tickets for struggling franchises, something the Athletics and Nationals haven't been doing much of in recent seasons. Could this accelerate their respective promotions? Certainly it could, but I don't think we'll see Cespedes or Harper in the majors the first few months. If asking me to choose between Cespedes and Harper, or Trout for that matter, I choose the younger guys without hesitation. There's more room for growth.
With the interesting moves they've made this winter, the woebegone Athletics have enough outfield depth to be patient, which is the ultimate reason fantasy owners should be cautious in their draft/auction commitment. Coco Crisp should handle center field, and even when Cespedes is ready, he might not be better defensively and could move to right field. Among the corner outfield options here are Seth Smith, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill and Gomes, each new to the organization and possessing at least some degree of proven ability or upside elsewhere. Outfielders Chris Carter and Michael Taylor are also lurking and seemingly close to ready, and at some point former infielder Grant Green could push himself into the outfield fray. In short, the Athletics aren't hurting for options. I expect Cespedes to spend perhaps half the season in the minor leagues.
Whenever a fancy new name hits the fantasy scene, there's bound to be the requisite dream-in-the-sky high hopes for said player statistically. It wouldn't be shocking if Cespedes eventually attained great heights, even in Oakland. He could certainly hit at least 25 home runs at some point and steal enough bases to matter; it's hard to tell. What is easy to tell is a promising player like this is nearly always overrated in initial drafts, whether it's a young rookie or veteran star from another country. Take the gamble for one-year leagues very late in a draft, if at all.