The Nationals’ pursuit of a center fielder took General Manager Mike Rizzo to the Dominican Republic yesterday, when he watched and evaluated one of the most high-profile, talented and priciest Cuban players in recent memory.
The Nationals staged a private workout for Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes at their Dominican academy in Boca Chica, a person with knowledge of the workout said. Both Rizzo and Nationals international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia attended, the person said.
Rizzo’s step of evaluating Cespedes in person, which he had not previously done, reiterates the Nationals’ interest in Cespedes, an athletic, power-hitting outfielder capable of playing in the majors immediately. Cespedes, 26, set a Cuban record for home runs last season and defected from the country this year. He has yet to officially establish residency and become a free agent. It’s not clear when Cespedes will complete the process, but he is expected to sometime over the winter. When he does, Cespedes will likely draw a contract worth roughly $35 million.
Cespedes has already worked out for several other clubs, and the Marlins and Yankees are believed to be among the teams most interested in him. The interest will likely allow Cespedes to surpass the six-year, $30.25 million contract that fireballing reliever Aroldis Chapman signed with the Reds before 2010.
Rizzo has said the “most logical” way for the Nationals to land their desired center fielder would be through a trade. But Cespedes gives them another intriguing option, especially in an offseason with an otherwise thin free agent market in the outfield.
Under DiPuglia’s watch, the Nationals’ scouting staff has long had Cespedes on its radar. Several Nationals scouts attended a showcase for Cespedes back in early November, which occurred just before his representatives released a bizarre YouTube video of his athletic exploits, replete with a “Star Wars”-style introduction and a shot of Cespedes roasting a pig on a spit.
The video enhanced Cespedes’s public profile significantly. But even before this offseason, the Nationals’ baseball operations staff had informed ownership about Cespedes, both his ability level and how much they expected it would take to sign him. As Rizzo’s visit shows, their interest has not waned a bit.