The Major League draft trails behind the other major sports for excitement and sizzle. The draft is still vital to building successful franchises. There is frequently a gap between a player being drafted and appearing at the Major League level though. International players are not part of the draft. Depending on what country a player comes from, this can add levels of complexity to their potential signing. Cuban players must first leave Cuba and establish residence in a third country, often Haiti, Dominican Republic or Mexico. They then have to apply and wait to be declared a free agent. In an effort to create competitive balance, spending restrictions have been implemented. There is a signing window each year normally July 2nd to June 15th.
Players under 25 can no longer sign for true Free Agent dollars. The rules behind signings and how the pool spending totals are calculated are quite complex. Teams start with roughly $6 million, except those who have signed MLB free agents or are facing sanctions for infractions and have the ability to add nominal sums to this pool. This builds a bit of a framework for trying to predict where and for how much young international prospects might sign.
The 2020 signing period was tentatively scheduled to begin July 2nd but due to complications of the Covid-19 global pandemic was shifted to January 15th, 2021. MLB Pipeline released their Top 30 prospects for this signing period and at the top of the list was a player who should appear familiar to Cuban baseball fans in Yoelqui Céspedes. A player I have seen in action many times over the past few years and have documented in photo & video. Video links embedded into this article.
He is the half brother of Cuban slugger and former New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes. Two spellings of his first name appear in public records. The more aglocentric Yoelkis is what appeared when he represented Cuba in the 2017. More recently Yoelqui which is more likely how he prefers to spell it has been appearing.
Tale of the Tape
Height 5’9″ 205lbs
Bats: R Throws: R
Scouting Report 20–80 Grading Scale
Céspedes despite his youth has decent sample size of at bats playing for Granma in the Cuban National Series. He debuted as a 17 year old in 2015–2016 and played in 44 games and became a key piece of championship squads in 2016–2017/2017–2018. Although the overall talent level of the Cuban National Series has dropped over recent seasons Yoelqui was 10 years younger than the average league player. He still faced admirable competition in Cuba’s Top League.
He did miss time including most of the playoffs in 2018 with leg injuries but in his 4 seasons in Cuba slashed .287/.351/.415 with 12 Home Runs & 98 RBI in 721 AB’s. The knock is that he struggled against good breaking pitches, of note Cuba is a heavy breaking pitch league, however he did still put up solid if not spectacular batting lines. This has some scouts thinking he could be a better MLB hitter if he can master fastballs while hopefully improving or at least recognizing breaking balls. There is some concern though as average velocity in Cuba is decidedly lower than in MLB.
He’s Got Skills
One of his top skills is his speed this however has yet to turn into consistent base stealing results only swiping 14 bases against 11 times caught. With the decline in steals in the majors overall, the hope is that his speed can at least translate into a plus baserunner who can learn strategic spots to swipe a bag.Perhaps due to roster depth in Granma and with the Cuban National Team Yoelqui has predominantly played right field and definitely has the throwing arm for it as seen by his arm tool grading out at 60/80 vs his overall defensive rating at 55/80.
His value will rise if he can handle Centerfield. More likely Right field is his natural position but he does have the versatility to fill in in center. As mentioned he is the half brother of Yoenis who is one of the purest power hitters to ever come out of Cuba. Yoelqui has reportedly spent most of 2020 working out in the Bahamas with his brother and adding muscle to a short but stalky/fit frame and copying more of Yoenis hitting mechanics. Should you expect him to be the power hitter his brother was?. He grades out at a well above average 55/80 for power, and is expected to improve as he ages and strengthens. Comparing him to Yoenis as a home run hitter is likely unfair though.
Where will He Sign?
Céspedes inked with the Chicago White Sox for $2 Million.
Singer/Actor Marc Anthony’s Magnus agency represents Céspedes. They are an agency that has accumulated an immense amount of foreign baseball and more specifically Cuban baseball talent in the past few years. One of the most comparable players to sign with Magnus is Victor Victor Mesa in 2018. Victor Victor signed with the Miami Marlins for $5.25 million (his 17 year old brother Victor Jr. received $1 million) the former Cuban World Baseball Classic teammates are very similar in skill, however the perception may be that Victor Victor has higher value due to him being a purer centerfielder. Mesa battled injuries in his 1st pro season in A/AA. He underwhelmed somewhat but did rebound to make the Arizona Fall League All-Star team.
The Chicago White Sox have been the most aggressive in signing Cuban players of late and had a handshake deal with young pitcher Norge Carlos Vera for a reported $1.5 million (still not official as of this writing). They are also reported to be interested in two-way player Oscar Luis Colas. Colas figures to get as close to max dollars as a team can provide. Despite this, the White Sox remained the main suitor for Céspedes. Speculation had Yoelqui receiving $1.5 million. This proved close to the ultimate sum he received. That number was likely lower than what was first theorized and is perhaps a product of the delayed period creating a bigger class of players than what would have been available in July originally.
Colas is currently still available and many think he will wait until January 2022 to sign. Speculation exists that the White Sox might already have an agreement in place. Is Yoelqui Céspedes bound to be the dynamic exciting walking highlight reel his brother was while healthy? Those expectations might be a bit much but for a relative pittance to what other Cubans signed for in recent years the White Sox have bought an affordable young prospect with plenty of pedigree and tools to develop.