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What Is Yoenis Cespedes Worth?


We’re out on Buehrle and apparently Kelly Johnson is going to re-sign with the Jays. Rumor has it that the only big splash Detroit is somewhat likely to make this week is in the chase for Mr. 45-inch box jump. So, consider this “What About Yoenis Cespedes” part 2. As time has gone by, we’ve been hearing two notes struck repeatedly in Cespedes rumors: 1. The Tigers are very interested 2. His asking price just keeps rising. Last I read, speculation was that Cespedes would get (and, in fact, had already been offered) an 8-year contract worth at least $60 million with at least $10 million up front. The question becomes: is he worth that?

The first part of the answer would have to be “what would it take to be worth $60 million over 8 years”? That works out to $7.5 million per year and unlike signing an older player (like Albert Pujols) to a longish deal there is no real reason to expect Cespedes to significantly decline before his contract would wind down at age 33 or 34. The short answer is: “a hair below average”. Cespedes doesn’t have to be a world beater to be worth $7.5 million per, because (and this is the fundamental basis of ‘replacement level’ theory in baseball) average players are scarce enough to have real value. Fangraphs estimates a value for players based on WAR and average salaries and in 2011 the closest outfielder to a $7.5 million value was Martin Prado of the Braves with 1.6 WAR and a $7.4 million value. The next guy above was Seth Smith of the Rockies with 1.9 WAR and $8.5 million and Nelson Cruz of the Rangers with 1.6 WAR (rounded up) and $7.1 million.

Prado had a bad year at the plate in 2011 [.260/.302/.385) – relative to what he’s considered to be capable of – but made up for it with statistically good play in the field. Though he has played a lot of infield over his career, he was primarily an outfielder last season. Seth Smith had a solid year at the plate (.284/.347/.483) though this gets deflated for the park effect and doesn’t give him an exceptional oWAR out of the gate. In the field he struggled, with a statistically weak arm and statistically poor range.

We would expect Cespedes to have a lot of pop, but likely a lowish batting average and OBP. We would also expect him to cover a lot of ground in the outfield and complement that with a strong arm. That, of course, is IF he pans out and turns into the major league hitter that scouts think he can be. In every respect but range, that makes Cespedes a closer match to Nelson Cruz – or at least the Nelson Cruz of the 2011 regular season. Some of you might be surprised to find that Cruz was good for only 1.6 WAR last year – but I’ll give you the same explanation that I give for the Tigers playoff collapse against Texas: “Nelson Cruz doesn’t usually hit a home run every single game”. He did knock 29 over the fences in 2011, but wasn’t that great in other respects – with only a .263 batting average and walks in 6.4% of his appearances. That, roughly, is what I’d expect from Cespedes: .263/.312/.509.

But… even though that was a ‘down year’ for Nelson Cruz, normally that kind of hitting (though it doesn’t represent an offensive game without weak spots) would make you decidedly above average. So.. why was Cruz worth so little? First of all, he only played in 124 games – if he had played in 156 of the Rangers 162 he would have had a precisely average 2.0 WAR total and been worth closer to $9 million. In addition, Cruz had a bad year in the field (though he isn’t considered to be a bad defender in general), costing the team more than half a win due to bad range and a few more decimal points due to sluggishness on the basepaths. From what we’ve heard of Cespedes, we’d expect him to more resemble the Nelson Cruz of 2010 and before – a plus defender in the outfield corners and a threat to steal more than the occasional base. Combine Cruz’ career averages in baserunning and fielding with his subpar offense (with plus power and little on-base aptitude) and assume he plays in 156 games and you get… a player good for 3.64 WAR and about $16 million dollars. Of course, Nelson Cruz benefits from playing in the Arlington heat – but that is factored into the conversion of raw batting stats into WAR already.

If Yoenis Cespedes does what we think he’s capable of, namely everything but get on base, he’ll be worth far more than that $60 million. If he plays defense as well as Martin Prado (and he could be better than Prado) he wouldn’t have to hit any better than Prado did last year – which added up to an OPS under .700. If anything is a given, we can safely say that he has pop, so a ‘worst case scenario’ of .230/.280/.430 would still give him a value of $7.5 million or more. That doesn’t quite answer the question of ‘should the Tigers sign Cespedes’, even to a true believer in statistical analysis. For one thing, he’s a big question mark – even more than an ordinary player is a question mark – because he’s never seen a day of major league (or minor league) ball in the States. To a large extent, that is offset by the fact that his ceiling (4 WAR or so) is relatively high – nonetheless, it has to be acknowledged that he could simply fail to achieve and wind up being paid $7 million to flail like Iorg in AAA. Not that I think that will happen, but this has all the risks of any amateur signing. Even the Nats had to know that it was no given that Stephen Strasburg would be winning Cy Youngs instead of purple hearts.

In short, Cespedes looks like he’s worth paying $60 million for – all things considered. Still, I’d question why the Tigers would be the ones to sign him. The Marlins might want him more than the average team out of a desire to market the team to the large Cuban community in Miami. The Yankees probably want Cespedes and Darvish (rather than normal free agents) in order to avoid luxury tax payments by exchanging large annual salaries for large signing bonuses. The Tigers, it would seem, just want Cespedes to be Cespedes. The desire to upgrade team speed may be serious (though I may not agree), but Cespedes looks to provide speed in the middle of the batting order and not speed at the top. And while Cespedes might be worth $7.5 million, he doesn’t exactly fill a position of need for Detroit. Last year Brennan Boesch (despite the time on the DL) was worth $7.6 million. Austin Jackson was worth $12.7 million. Ryan Raburn was worth $5 million, but in only 2/3 of a season worth of at-bats.