Darron Cummings/Associated Press
PHOENIX – After watching the YouTube promotional video of the five-tool outfielder with a sculpted body and freakish athleticism, the Oakland Athletics were eager to see Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes up close.
“He’s finally here,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “We hear about the potential and the tools and all that stuff. I’m not just excited to see him hit but excited to see him working out with the team.”
Cespedes certainly didn’t disappoint.
The 26-year-old Cespedes worked out with the Athletics for the first time Sunday. The slugging outfielder performed some agility drills to measure his vertical leap and took batting practice with Manny Ramirez and Cedric Hunter during a highly anticipated session in which he sprayed pitches to all fields and sent a couple of souvenirs over the walls.
He then shagged flies with Ramirez and signed autographs for fans on a day where there wasn’t a spring training game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, just a spectacle.
“I’m very happy to be here because I feel I’m very close to my dream to play in the big leagues,” said Cespedes, who played in Cuba’s top league for eight seasons before defecting in 2011 to the Dominican Republic with his mother, an aunt and four cousins.
He’ll take batting practice and focus on defensive drills over the next week or so as he tries to get up to speed with his teammates who have been here for two weeks.
“I’ll be ready in five or six days,” he said.
Cespedes is projected to be ready for the majors right away, although the Athletics’ truncated spring schedule may put a crimp in that. They depart Arizona on March 22 so they can open the season in Japan on March 28 against Seattle.
Cespedes’ arrival gave manager Bob Melvin 16 outfielders that he has to find at-bats for during camp.
The biggest question facing the Athletics is whether Cespedes will play left field or replace Coco Crisp in center. Crisp has said he wants to stay put, but that’s also Cespedes’ natural position, and the Athletics will want to do anything they can to help him feel comfortable as he adjusts to a new country and a new level of competition.
“I’m willing to play wherever they ask me,” Cespedes said.
Melvin said he’ll have Cespedes do his drills from center field until he gets acclimated.
“It’s not an issue right now,” Athletics general manager Billy Beane said. “But I think ultimately what Bob’s going to do is put the best center fielder in center field and the best left fielder in left field, whoever that may be.”
Before Sunday, Melvin had only seen images of Cespedes.
“I saw some video,” he said. “I saw the YouTube video, too. It was good.”
Cespedes’ reputation preceded him thanks to a 20-minute promotional video put out by his handlers that showcased his power at the plate and deft defense along with his 45-inch vertical box jump, 6.3-second speed in the 60-yard dash and 1,300-pound leg press.
“I mean, it’s hard not to be impressed with some of the stuff,” Beane said.
“The vertical I was a little more impressed with,” said Melvin, who cringed a bit at the sight of Cespedes pushing stacks of weights with his legs as two young men stood atop the 1,000 pounds of iron plates.
The signing of Cespedes to a $36 million, four-year contract, the highest ever for a Cuban defector, is a real splash for a low-budget franchise that surprisingly outbid some big-spending clubs for the slugging outfielder who starred for Cuba in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, where he hit .458 with two home runs and five RBIs in six games.
“He’s a physical specimen, he’s got all the tools, and there’s some potential,” Suzuki said. “So, anytime you can add an athlete like that to any ballclub, it definitely brings some excitement.”
“First of all, we thought he was a unique physical talent, strength, speed, we did have a lot of history from an amateur standpoint,” Beane said. “And really to find a potentially center of the diamond player in the prime of his career, those players usually aren’t available to us.
“Anytime you’re putting out that type of money, it’s a risk. But he is a pretty unique talent, you don’t see guys like this come around too often.”
After defecting from Cuba last fall, Cespedes trained with Edgar Mercedes, an agent and owner of the Born to Play baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.
“I’ve been working out for the last seven months. I feel I’m in very good shape and ready to take on this challenge,” Cespedes said. “I feel I can make any adjustment I need to make to play in the big leagues.”
He said he feels he can withstand the rigors of a 162-game season because he always felt plenty strong after his 90-game seasons in Cuba were over. “So, that gives me the confidence to face this challenge of playing a longer season.”
As for acclimating to a new environment off the field, Beane said the Athletics will pair Cespedes with a mentor who will help him learn English and adjust to his new surroundings.
Already, Ramirez, with a locker next to Cespedes, has taken the newcomer under his wing.
“I already talked to him briefly this morning and he was very friendly with me, inviting me to work together this spring training and to spend some time in the cage talking about hitting,” Cespedes said.
He brushed off the notion that his big contract will put pressure on him, saying, “All I know is I have to play regardless. I’m here to play baseball. I’m here to do my best, and to give 100 percent on the field regardless of the money.”
He said he’d like to hit at least .280 but as far as power, all he had to say was, “I expect good numbers.”
Cespedes and his agent, Adam Katz, declined to go into details of Cespedes’ defection from Cuba.
Asked if he thinks he’ll miss his homeland, Cespedes said, “I have family members in the Dominican, and that gives me a chance to have good communication with them.”
Amid all the buzz, one of his teammates wasn’t excited to watch him hit Sunday.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t really care about his BP,” fellow outfielder Jonny Gomes said. “I’ve played long enough to see some of the best BP not make it out of A-ball, you know? But yeah, I’m just curious to see his talents and how they come over into the game.”
Gomes said he knows all about being an outsider trying to fit in after playing winter ball in Mexico earlier in his career, so he said he expects Cespedes’ adjustment to be more off the field than on it.
The stadium, he said, will be his sanctuary.
“At the end of the day, it’s still baseball,” Gomes said. “There’s nine innings, six outs to an inning, and the home runs count.”