Moneyball Part II: Billy Beane Shocks the World. Again.

I write my own baseball blog, called Baseball's Economist; and I figured I'd share my post from the other day about the A's signing of Yoenis Cespedes with the Athletics Nation community:

Does Billy Beane know something that no one else in baseball knows… again?? How could baseball’s smallest market team put up a figure that scared off all the big market teams, including the craziest spenders of this off-season, for a player who has never stepped foot on even a minor league field in America? This week, Yoenis Cespedes signed a 4 year/$36 million contract with Beane’s Oakland Athletics. Kevin Goldstein rated Cespedes the 20th best prospect in baseball coming into 2012, and he has put up some incredible numbers against baseball’s elite, albeit in a small sample size. In six games during the 2009 WBC, Cespedes hit 2 home runs, drove in 5, and hit .458; good for an OPS of 1.480. This move by Oakland came completely out of left field (pun intended), and brings up many interesting questions; I’ll attempt to answer three of them.

1. Does this deal make financial sense for Oakland?

This deal does make financial sense because to be worth $9 million a year, Cespedes will only need accumulate a WAR of 8.0 (based on today’s current market). Also, the contract does not push Oakland’s 2012 payroll over $60 million. Id be shocked if Cespedes wasn’t worth 2 wins a season over the next four years. The outfielders who had around 2.0 fWAR in 2011, were Coco Crisp, David Dejesus, Seth Smith, and Josh Willingham… all who are ironically connected to Oakland. I’m not a scout so I can’t truly analyze his ability, but from what I’ve read Cespedes will likely be more productive than those five players. I’m sure Beane feels the same way, or else he would not have made Cespedes his highest paid player for the upcoming season.

2. Can Cespedes reach his maximum potential, and if he does what does that mean for Oakland?

Based on Cespedes' 2011 numbers in Cuba, Clay Davenport projects a major league line of .245/.311/.469 for the Cuban outfielder. A .780 OPS is solid and similar to the offensive numbers put up by outfielders, Adam Jones, Marlon Byrd, and the 2007-10 version of Hunter Pence; which would be serviceable to Oakland, but not the superstar Beane seems to be hoping for. Oakland's front office must think that Cespedes will reach his lofty potential, and be a powerful corner outfielder along the lines of Jay Bruce. Over the last two seasons, Bruce has produced an average of 29 home runs and an OPS of .832. Bruce is projected (by Bill James) to have an OPS of .859 and hit 32 home runs, in 2012. An outfielder in his late twenties, who is able to put up those kind of numbers would be an extremely valuable asset, and make this signing an incredible one.

The question is if Cespedes will be used to bring in another stock of prospects to continue Oakland’s rebuilding, or if his production will have Oakland competing during 2014 and ‘15 seasons. Beane has traded almost all of his valuable assets away this off-season (Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey), for a stock of young players that have added to Oakland’s youth. Oakland won’t be competitive in the A.L. West in 2012 or 2013. But, they have an interesting young pitching staff, and Jemile Weeks is a ballplayer, so by 2014 when there will be two wild cards teams, it would not be outrageous to think the Athletics will be a playoff contender. Waiting through two more non-competitive seasons may be a little depressing for Oakland fans, but there is definitely some glimmers of hope.

3. Is cleaning house at a certain position and then acquiring a massive surplus at that position in the same off-season, the new "Moneyball" strategy?

On December 31st, Oakland’s outfield consisted of Ryan Sweeny, Michael Taylor, and Jermaine Mitchell, …. Who?? Since then, they have traded for Josh Reddick, Smith, and Colin Cowgill, and signed Crisp, Cespedes, and Jonny Gomes. The moneyball concept used to be acquiring players with high OBP’s, that concept now seems to be all about converting a weakness into a surplus. Let’s say you lock in Crisp in center and Cespedes in right, that leaves Oakland with four outfielders, two left-handed and two right-handed all competing for left field. I’m not sure if Beane has a plan to trade some of this stock, or just wants an incredible amount of depth. Cespedes, Smith, Reddick, Cowgill and Crisp are all under team control for at least the next three years, so it seems that Gomes is the most expendable. This amount of outfielders leaves me as confused as Scott Hatteberg must’ve been when he was told that he was going to replace Jason Giambi at first base in 2002. I honestly cannot come to any conclusion on what Beane expects to do with all of these outfielders. My best guess is that he hopes Gomes gets enough at-bats in 2012, to have some value at the trade deadline, then trade Smith either before 2013 or during, and have Crisp, Cespedes, and Reddick as a lethal outfield in 2014. I’m not sure if Beane’s strategy for the future is the right one, but the last time he thought outside the box like this, his team was a perennial contender.

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