The Washington Nationals may attempt to find their center field solution in the curious form of Yoenis Cespedes, a 26-year-old Cuban defector who will likely command a contract richer than $30 million.
Multiple Nationals talent evaluators, according to a team official, attended a workout Friday in the Dominican Republic that showcased Cespedes, a power-hitting center fielder regarded as the second-best player in Cuba behind third baseman Yulieski Gourriel.
Cespedes and his representatives – agent Adam Katz and Dominican trainer Edgar Mercedes – offered the workout as a way to drum up interest and to put out word that Cespedes, who defected this summer, will likely be cleared for free agency within months.
The Nationals, like most teams, have had Cespedes on their radar for years, following him through numerous international competitions. Bill Singer, one top Nationals scout, has seen him play several times and filed several reports. In a hint of their interest, Nationals baseball people have informed Nationals ownership about Cespedes’s skills and the money it would take to sign him.
“We know a lot about him,” the official said.
Cespedes is 26, although players who defect from Cuba are sometimes older than they claim to be. Last season in Cuba, Cespedes set a league record with 33 home runs and slugged .667. In the 2009 World Baseball Classic, Cespedes hit two homers and three triples in six games. He is said to have strong “makeup,” scouting lingo for character.
“He looks like a football player,” the Nationals official said. “He can run. He’s got power.”
The Nationals, who have outlined acquiring a center fielder their top goal this offseason, regard Cespedes as an outstanding defensive player with a below-average arm. He’s not an ideal fit. His powerful bat makes him project as a No. 5 hitter, not the leadoff man the Nationals desire. Still, “you would love to have him,” the team official said.
It will by no means be easy for any team to acquire Cespedes. Katz and Mercedes are expected to garner a contract for Cespedes north of $30 million for five years, including a rich signing bonus. The New York Yankees have shown interest, as first reported by Yahoo! Sports. The Florida Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies are also expected to vie for Cespedes, a major league official said.
The Nationals have recently enjoyed a fruitful working relationship with Mercedes, Cespedes’s trainer. Last winter, they signed catcher Raudy Reed and outfielder Randy Novas, a pair of teenaged Dominican prospects represented by Mercedes, to six-figure signing bonuses.
In late winter 2010, the Nationals vied for another high-profile Cuban player when they submitted the second-highest bid for flame-throwing left-hander Aroldis Chapman, losing out to the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds signed Chapman for $30.25 million over six years, and the Nationals bid well more than $20 million.
Katz and Mercedes have marketed Cespedes, in part, with a bizarre and astonishing video. E-mailed to major league executives and posted to YouTube, “Yoenis Cespedes The Showcase” starts with a “Star Wars” homage making a muddled comparison between Cespedes and Luke Skywalker.
It includes mammoth, slow-motion home runs set to Christopher Cross’s “Sailing.” There are shots of Cespedes working out – 1,300-pound leg presses, 45-inch leaps, slow-motion sprinting in nothing but spandex – with hip-hop blaring in the background. (Warning: There is profane language in the hip-hop lyrics.) Cespedes thanks his mother, a former softball pitcher on the Cuban national team. And then it ends, like some twisted version of Italian cinema, with a close-up shot of a pig rotating and roasting on a spit.
As of Monday morning, the video had been viewed fewer than 400 times. Given Cespendes’ talent and the interest he has sparked, countless more people will be watching him very soon.