High hopes for Cespedes vs. a history of disappointments


Oakland’s surprise offseason acquisition Yoenis Cespedes is set to make his spring training debut this weekend which certainly stands out as something to get excited about in the face of another uncertain rebuilding effort by general manager Billy Beane and the neverending drama of the A’s quest to move to San Jose.

All too often it seems like the A’s only get a lot of attention for losing players rather than acquiring them. When prominent free agents like Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, or Barry Zito walk out the door with little, if any, effort on Beane’s part to keep them in town that’s when the national media takes notice. And the baseball establishment certainly wakes up and pays attention when stellar players such as Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, etc. are traded for prospects.

Cespedes, the power-hitting Cuban outfielder, represents a welcome prominent acquisition by a team that’s gotten a reputation for noteworthy subtraction from their roster rather than addition. It’s pretty rare that the A’s get a lot of positive buzz by committing a lot of resources to one player.

Here’s a quick rundown of some notable, and forgettable, bold moves the A’s have made with their money and draft picks over the years.

1990: Todd Van Poppel

Ah, Todd Van Poppel. A painful name for any longtime A’s fan to recall. Here’s the grandaddy of big-splash moves by the A’s that played out like a belly flop.

Van Poppel was one of the biggest names heading into the 1990 draft but major concerns over whether he would sign for anything less than big money vs. going to college scared off most teams which allowed the A’s to swoop in and select the hard thrower with the No. 17 pick in the draft. The big Texan with the blazing fastball and seemingly sky-high ceiling looked like he could be just what the team needed to continue dominating the American League for years to come.

How often does a reigning World Series champ get an opportunity to land a potential overall No. 1 draft selection?

Well, we all know how that worked out. After 5 painfully disappointing years with the A’s Van Poppel left town with an 18-29 record and a 5.75 ERA with 242 walks and 295 strikeouts to go along with 402 hits in 406.2 innings spent bouncing unsuccessfully between the rotation and bullpen. Van Poppel drifted through the big leagues, playing for five more teams before calling it quits.

I will freely admit that I heckled the big guy at spring training toward the end of his career. Looking back, that was pretty mean. Shame on me. Now that I’m a little older and a little more mellow I tip my hat to the guy for pitching that long.  It would have been easy to take that big contract and go home after 5 years in Oakland but Van Poppel kept plugging away, never pitching in more than 59 games in the majors until his retirement. You don’t do that unless you love the game.

Todd, if you’re reading this I’m sorry.

OK, I will now dive back into my bitter post about big money expenditures/bold draft day moves gone bad.

1995: Ariel Prieto

Cespedes isn’t Oakland’s first gamble on a prominent Cuban player. Nope, Prieto takes that honor.

The starting pitcher was selected by the A’s with the No. 5 overall pick in the 1995 draft ahead of Todd Helton and against the better advice of some of Oakland’s talent evaluators (You can blame Sandy Alderson for this one). The hope was that Prieto could immediately step to the front of the A’s rotation help vault the team back into the playoff hunt in the American League. At that point the A’s were just a few years removed from the ALCS and still had Terry Steinbach, Mark McGwire, and Rickey Henderson in the lineup so it wasn’t completely insane to make a rare win-now move with the draft.

The Haas family consistently shelled out the money to field a winner and keep it together so if committing a top 5 pick on someone who could potentially help deliver one more great season with the remaining members of the 1989 World Series winning team, why not go for it?

Of course, we all know how that worked out. The right hander made his MLB debut that summer and went 2-6 for Oakland, eventually finishing his lackluster career with a record of 15-24 with a 4.85 ERA, 176 walks to go along with 231 strikeouts and 407 hits coughed up in 352.1 innings.

You can see why the A’s would end up waiting 17 years to take the plunge on another hyped Cuban player.

These days Prieto is back in the A’s organization as pitching coach for the Vermont Lake Monsters and his biggest contribution to the A’s could actually come this season. Right now Prieto has been brought over from the minor league complex to help Cespedes deal with the transition to the Major Leagues. If the A’s keep Prieto on the coaching staff all season and he plays a key role in Cespedes having a great career in green and gold I’ll almost let go of the fact that the A’s selected him ahead of Helton, Roy Halladay, and Carlos Beltran in 1995.

2002: Jermaine Dye

Beane made one of his most memorable trades in 2001, landing Dye in a three-team deal. The Vallejo native helped power Oakland to more than 100 wins and a playoff appearance where he promptly broke his leg while fouling off a pitch and was arguably never the same again.

Oakland handed Dye the biggest contract in team history up to that point, locking up the slugging outfielder to a 3-year, $32 million deal.

Of course, we all know how that worked out. The injury bug got a taste of Dye in the 2001 playoffs and never lost its appetite for the big guy, keeping him off the field for significant chunks of time through the entire contract.

Dye proceeded to play in just 131, 65, and 137 games over the next 3 years and never posted an OPS over .793 before signing with the White Sox as a free agent after the 2004 season. As soon as he landed in Chicago he got healthy, hit like a beast, and helped lead his team to a World Series win … basically everything Oakland was hoping for when they ponied up $32 million.

2004: Eric Chavez

In 2003 Miguel Tejada hit free agency and the A’s didn’t even make him a contract offer to stay in Oakland. But in 2004 Beane pushed all his chips into the middle of the table and gave Chavez a 6-year, $66 million contract to the young Gold Glove-winning, power-hitting third baseman.

Emotionally, it made sense to give Tejada a deal like that. Intellectually, it made sense to give Chavez the big money. He was younger, a far better defensive player, and in theory his best seasons were ahead of him.

Of course, we all know how that worked out. Injuries destroyed his career and Chavez never posted an OPS above .800 after 2004 and after peaking at 160 games played in 2005 he stepped onto the field in just 137, 90, 23, 8, and 33 games for Oakland.

Most of the time it’s agonizing to see the A’s sit on their wallet and let players bolt as free agents. In the cases of Dye and Chavez it may have been harder to ride the roller coaster of high hopes when their contracts were signed only to see the small-budget team crippled by having a limited payroll leveraged into hobbled high-priced players.

2005: Esteban Loaiza

The A’s develop pitchers, they don’t sign them as free agents, right?

That was right until 2005 when Beane threw $21.4 million at Loaiza to lace up white shoes for 2 years and we all know how that worked out. Loaiza went an unimpressive 11-9 for the A’s in 2006 with a 4.89 ERA allowing the American League to rap out 179 hits in 154.2 innings.

By the end of 2007, one of Beane’s rare free agent indulgences was given away to the Dodgers on waivers.

Sure, Loaiza was part of Oakland’s last playoff team but I think his most memorable contribution to the A’s was getting a DUI while speeding along in his Ferrari at 120 MPH which led to Beane banning booze from the clubhouse. With $21.4 million of the A’s money in his pocket you’d think the guy could afford a cab after a few drinks.

2008: Michael Ynoa

He’s kind of like Todd Van Poppel for a new generation of jaded A’s fans … only Van Poppel actually pitched in the majors. Ynoa has seemingly been on the shelf ever since getting a then-record $4.25 million signing bonus from the A’s out of the Dominican Republic.

How could Beane and Co. not drool over the sight of a 6-7 teen throwing a change, curveball, and a fastball that could reportedly reach the mid-90s? Throw a good chunk of change at the kid, give him some solid coaching and training, and then sit back and laugh in a few years as he blows away American League hitters for a minimum salary for several seasons.

It was a bold, brilliant, beautiful move by the A’s who grabbed national headlines and positive buzz across the baseball universe with the signing.

Of course, we all know how this has worked out so far. Ynoa has pitched in exactly 3 games as a pro, logging just 9 innings which all came in 2010.

2010: Ben Sheets

You’d think Beane would have learned after the Loaiza signing fell flat that free-agent pitchers can be a big ripoff. Wrong. In 2010 the A’s GM tempted fate one more time and threw $10 million at the oft-injured Sheets even though he missed all of 2009 with an elbow injury.

The move screamed, “There really is an unofficial minimum payroll we have to meet or we’re going to end up in hot water for pocketing too much of our revenue sharing check.” The only way to rationalize the move was to reason that the A’s had the money to burn and at a bare minimum Sheets could be a solid influence on a young pitching staff and a trade chip at the deadline.

Of course, we all know how that one worked out. Sheets was a great guy and gritty competitor while wearing green and gold but he was also running on empty, succumbing to a season-ending arm injury after just 20 starts. It was actually a miracle he gave the A’s that much considering the fact that his arm was hanging on by a thread.

Note to Beane: Stop signing free agent pitchers.

So that brings us full circle to Cespedes. The A’s have waded into dangerous water again, stepping out of character and making a major commitment to a player. This time it’s $36 million over 4 years to a guy who’s never seen big league pitching.

Unlike every other player mentioned in this post, we have no idea how this will work out. Which is a relief. Right now it’s all good buzz for the A’s and Cespedes and this weekend’s spring training debut will be a major step in a relationship that history says could end very badly for the A’s.

But Cespedes isn’t Prieto or Van Poppel or any of the other players in this post who serve as cautionary tales for the A’s front office. He’s his own man, a spectacular athlete with all the potential in the world to inject some life into a franchise that could desperately use it.

Spring training is all about hope and dreams and limitless potential and no one personifies that for the A’s more than Cespedes.  Today we’ll start to learn whether all those dreams of greatness can finally pay off for an organization long overdue due for a break.

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