Courting a coveted free agent used to be so easy. You invited him to your city, wined and dined him with the ownership at a swanky restaurant, had him tour your stadium and waited for the ooohs and aaahs as you put his photo on your larger-than-life scoreboard with your logo superimposed on his ball cap. Sometimes, you had the contract ready for his signature, hoping to convince him to avoid the next city on his tour itinerary.
Of course, those were the days before players came from such far-flung destinations as Taiwan, Japan and Cuba, where the only path to the majors is defection. The changing landscape of baseball’s international market has altered the way available potential stars match up with teams. Which brings us to the Nationals’ pursuit of Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, a 26-year-old whose offensive skills are said to be so advanced that he could slip right into a major league starting lineup.
First the good news: Cespedes is inching along toward establishing residency in the Dominican Republic, which would make him eligible to be signed by any major league club. He plays center field. The Nationals need a center fielder. You do the math. Cespedes debuted last night in the Dominican Winter League, and his every move will likely be watched by scouts from teams interested in acquiring his services.
Of course, with good news comes obligatory not-so-good news: Cespedes has named a list of six potential destinations, teams that have expressed the most interest in him, and the Nationals are not among them. Instead, the Marlins, Cubs, White Sox, Orioles, Cubs and Indians are the apparent first cut, according to The Associated Press.
The Nationals have long been interested in Cespedes and have scouted him extensively for years. General manager Mike Rizzo and international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia saw him in person during a private workout in the Dominican Republic back in November. Cespedes is viewed as a major league-ready answer to the Nationals’ longstanding need for a center fielder; whether he’d hit leadoff and flash his speed or whether the Nats would try to take advantage of his power to make a run producer out of him remains to be seen.
So does the notion of whether anyone will fork over upwards of $30 million over six years - the same neighborhood Reds flame-thrower Aroldis Chapman rolled into back in 2010 when he left Cuba - to sign Cespedes. Cespedes still has to establish residency and obtain a visa before his major league dream can become a reality, but heady clubs who have long waited for that day are content to let the process play out.
Rizzo has invested a lot of time and money into scouting Cespedes, and he’s probably not going to let a trivial detail about a supposed short list of candidates to sign him scare him off. Depending on what happens between the Nationals and free agent slugger Prince Fielder - who may or may not be in Texas this weekend to talk to the Rangers - the Nationals could either bolster their busy winter of player acquisitions or use money not accepted by Fielder to make Cespedes their new priority.
Of the teams now linked to Cespedes, the Marlins are likely to be the most aggressive pursuer. Cespedes would play well in the Cuban neighborhood where the Marlins’ new ballpark is ready to open in April, and Marlins president David Samson has promised an aggressive blitz.
Even if Cespedes signs elsewhere, the Nationals maintain interest in another promising Cuban, center fielder Jorge Soler, a 19-year-old who would have to refine his skills in the minors for at least a couple of seasons.
Whaddaya think?: Is the Cespedes camp posturing by releasing its list of preferred destinations? If it came down to a choice of Fielder or Cespedes, who would you choose and why? Is there room for both on the Nationals’ payroll and roster?