Perhaps as soon as today, Rusney Castillo will become a very, very rich man. For that, he may be able to offer a word of thanks to Yoenis Cespedes.
In some ways, Cespedes was a game-changing trailblazer for elite Cuban position players when he signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Athletics prior to the 2012 season.
A number of renowned Cuban pitchers -- Orlando Hernandez, Livan Hernandez, Jose Contreras, among others -- had made the transition from Cuba to the States. But the successes of Cuban position players had been more limited, and most of the position players who had come over had done so in their early-20s, requiring considerable time in the minors before they were ready to make a big league impact.
There were exceptions -- such as Alexei Ramirez, who went straight to the big leagues as a 26-year-old with the White Sox after signing a four-year, $4.75 million deal in late 2007 -- but there hadn't been a star-sized contract for one of the established, elite Cuban position players.
And so, when Cespedes made the decision to defect in 2011, he recognized that he was entering into something of an unknown. Neither he, nor the major league teams that would pursue him, had a substantial track record of players coming to the States from Cuba to suggest how his record-setting performance in his homeland (he was Cuba's all-time single-season leader in homers) might translate to baseball.
"There hadn't been that many position players from Cuba to play in the major leagues or at a high level," Cespedes said through interpreter Adrian Lorenzo. "I didn't know when I was in Cuba necessarily that that would be the case, but I got a feel for it in the 2009 WBC, when I was able to play against a lot of major league players. I thought with the success I had there, that's when I started to think that I could play at a high level here."
Cespedes had been known to the scouting community for years. There are TV broadcasts of games in Cuba. He'd been seen in international competition, including the World Baseball Classic.
Still, the limited sample of position players transitioning from Cuba's Serie Nacional -- where the quality of pitching varies wildly, from players who aren't fit for the minors to potential stars with overpowering stuff like Aroldis Chapman -- meant that there was at least some element of the unknown regarding Cespedes, at a time when he represented a fascinating sort of talent on the open market.
The number of elite free agents has dwindled in recent years, with long-term deals for young players resulting in a scarcity of top free agent talents whose prime years are ahead of them rather than behind them. The crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball has resulted in a drastic decrease in top power hitters.
So, Cespedes -- who was 26 when he achieved free agency -- represented a potentially rare talent. He was marketed thusly, with a memorable video (known as "The Showcase") offering a glimpse of Cespedes' incredible physical strength and physical tools, while suggesting that "the hopes and dreams of the Cuban national look to Yoenis Cespedes to fullfill (sic) his destiny."
The 20-minute video -- which featured the outfielder's game highlights, workouts and family vignettes and culminates in a barbecue with Cespedes roasting a pig on a spit -- created something of a sensation around the young power hitter. Burke Badenhop, then a member of a Marlins team that was one of the most aggressive teams in pursuing Cespedes, was among those who watched it. Asked for his recollections of a standout moment in the video, Badenhop cited a segment in which Cespedes is described as doing a 1,300-pound leg press.
"He had pretty much the gym on his leg press and his buddies," Badenhop recalled (quite accurately) of a highlight where Cespedes is pushing not only the weights but two individuals who are sitting on them.
"The video showed only a small sample of the work in that time," recalled Cespedes. "We didn't do it with [creating a sensation] in mind, necessarily."
But a sensation was nonetheless engendered in the baseball world, and further ratified by a series of private workouts for interested teams (including the Red Sox, who saw Cespedes at their Dominican Academy in November 2011). Cespedes describes those workouts as having been critical as a showcase for his talents where he could convince potentially skeptical major league teams of his skill set.
"It was a really important period for me, especially because there was really nobody ahead of me who had done it, who was before me who had done it," said Cespedes. "I was able to show some of the things I was able to do in combination with what I'd already done in Cuba and in the WBC, and I also think that period helped the other Cubans as well, from me being able to show all those things, maybe they were able to show themselves a little more."
At the time, because of the paucity of players who had gone straight from Cuba to the big leagues, Cespedes suggested he was unsure if he would head immediately to baseball's highest level or if he would first require a minor league apprenticeship.
"That really wasn't a determining factor in the negotiation process or even the consideration process," said Cespedes. "I'm glad, I'm happy that it worked out the way I did and I went straight to the major leagues. But if it hadn't, I would have worked just as hard. I would have still considered a team if it meant going to Triple-A or something like that."
That proved unnecessary. The A's signed him to a four-year, $36 million deal -- with Cespedes rejecting longer offers so that his contract would permit him to reach free agency after his age 29 season, squarely in the middle of his prime -- and on Opening Day he was in the lineup, going 1-for-3 with a double.
Unquestionably, there were transitions for Cespedes to confront in his first U.S. season in 2012. The list of off-the-field adaptations for a player coming from Cuba is virtually endless. On the field, the differences were likewise palpable.
"The first thing that stood out was the field, actually. The quality of the field here is immensely different than where it is in Cuba. The fields are just immaculate here, whereas in Cuba, not so much," said Cespedes. "And second, the most obvious difference is the gap in pitching talent, which is significant. The level of pitching here is significantly better than it is in Cuba. That was the biggest adjustment."
Despite those adjustments, however, Cespedes enjoyed an electrifying debut. He helped to propel the Athletics to the start of a run atop the AL West, hitting .292 with a .356 OBP and .505 slugging mark along with 23 homers in 129 games.
The market interest in players from Cuba (and the aforementioned scarcity of elite free agents) likely would have been strong regardless of how Cespedes did. Nonetheless, his immediate success ensured that the sort of guarantees available to such players would become more significant, as evidenced by the six-year, $68 million deal signed by Jose Abreu with the White Sox.
"The deals for [Cespedes] and Aroldis [Chapman], at the time, you wondered, 'How can they guarantee this much money to guys who have never played?' " noted Badenhop. "They've obviously been, probably, team-friendly deals, which is helping the Castillo guy now and these other guys."
At the same time, Cespedes' immediate success served as something of a beacon to other Cuban players who were considering the defection decision. Red Sox Triple-A reliever Dalier Hinojosa, for instance, said that Cespedes' success helped to convince him to defect and seek his opportunity playing in the States. There have been others who likewise have cited his example as a tipping point in convincing them to leave Cuba.
In other words, the recent flood of elite Cuban talent has, at least in some small way, followed the lead of Cespedes, a player whose decision to leave Cuba and subsequent performance defined a path that others have followed.
"Although I haven't thought about it all that much, I think for those players it was helpful and important for them to see what I was doing here, to be able to see what I was doing and to think that they've played at that level as well, that they've had some success at that level, and it probably gave them an impetus to decide that, maybe we can play here and we can play at this level," said Cespedes. "It gives me a lot of pride to know that players have taken my example and have come after me and had that kind of success."