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Signing Fielder could lead the Tigers to Cespedes

Update: Dave Dombrowski confirmed today that the Tigers are still interested in Cespedes. According to the Detroit News:

The Tigers might not be Cespedes' most likely destination at this point, but Dombrowski said "it's correct to say" the Tigers haven't declared themselves out of it.

Cespedes has established residency in the Dominican Republic and he has been declared a free agent by major league baseball, but still needs to be cleared by the U.S. Government for entry into the USA before he signs a contract.

Original Story: When the Tigers signed Prince Fielder, they surrendered their first round draft pick to the Milwaukee Brewers as compensation. Worse yet, they also gave up the slot money that goes with that draft pick under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement. Unlike they have done in seasons past, the Tigers will not be able to go "over slot" and reallocate the money that they’d have spent on a first rounder and pick up an equal talent in the later rounds of the draft by throwing a little extra cash in his direction.

After the Tigers announced that they had signed Fielder to a nine year, $ 214 million deal, there was some speculation that they may be out of the running for Cespedes. As it turns out, the signing of Fielder could have exactly the opposite impact on the Tigers’ pursuit of Cespedes.

By my count, the Tigers’ first pick in the June, 2012 draft will the the 91st selection. There are 31 first round picks, another 30 "sandwich" picks given to clubs as compensation for losing a Type A or B free agent, and the Tigers will choose 26th in each round based on their 95-win season in 2011. That’s 90 players who will be chosen before the Tigers ever get to pick.

For an organization that has so few top prospects in their system, this is not a good situation. Losing a first rounder as compensation is not new for the Tigers. They had no first-round pick in 2010, after they signed Jose Valverde. But they had a supplemental first round-pick because they had offered arbitration to Fernando Rodney, who declined in favor of greener pastures. The Tigers then gave Nick Castellanos $3.45 million, which was more bonus money than any non first-round pick had ever gotten, thus acquiring their lone blue chip position prospect.

This time, however, is different. Not only did the Tigers not offer arbitration to any of their departing free agents this winter, but the rules of the new CBA place strict limits on bonuses that can be given to drafted amateur players. Major league contracts, such as those given to Rick Porcello, Justin Verlander, and Castellanos, are a thing of the past.

To make matters worse for Detroit, there are also limits placed on the amount of money that a club can give to an international free agent. The Tigers gave Danrys Vasquez a million dollar signing bonus at the age of 16. There will be no more big bonuses of that kind, either.

There is one notable loop hole in the new way of doing business, though. That is, the rules for international players don’t apply to Cuban amateurs age 24 or above.

Enter Yoenis Cespedes, the heralded Cuban star, who has recently been declared a free agent by the MLB after defecting and establishing citizenship in the Dominican Republic. The Tigers are said to be one of six clubs (that we know of) interested in Cespedes. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski has personally flown to the DR to watch Cespedes work out. Other members of the front office have reportedly watched him, as well.

Jim Callis at Baseball America says that he’d rate the Cuban between No. 7 and No. 15 on BA’s list of top 100 prospects. Callis goes further and says that Cespedes would instantly be the top prospect in any of the six organizations that are rumored to be most interested in him. The closest would be Jacob Turner, who ranked 22nd in BA’s top 100 in 2011. The Marlins, Orioles, Cubs, and White Sox are also reported to be interested in the outfielder.

So, how much is such a player worth as a free agent? Expectations are that the bidding will start at the $30 million mark that the Reds gave to Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman, and it goes up from there. Perhaps the price tag could even reach $50 million, with the Marlins saying they'd spend "stupid money." The very top prospects in the draft can get contracts with a total value of $10-15 million, such as the Nationals’ Steven Strasburg and Bryce Harper. But those are the very best prospects. They also were not free agents. Cespedes is a notch below them on the talent scale, but still a legit five tool prospect according to just about every scouting report that has been published. By contrast, $7 million per season gets you Delmon Young or Josh Willingham, via arbitration or free agency.

Cespedes is a prospect with great upside, but not a proven major league star. He is thought to be close to major league ready, but may need at least some seasoning in the minor leagues, even if only to make the cultural adjustment to the American way of life after spending his entire life in Castro’s Cuba. He may or may not be able to make the adjustment to a much higher standard of pitching than he has been used to, although he did very well in the World Baseball Classic against some elite talent.

To the Detroit Tigers, Cespedes represents not only a player that the organization views very highly and has been monitoring for several years, but now he represents probably the only opportunity they will have in the next several years to throw some cash at an amateur to bolster their system. This year, Cespedes represents the only chance that the Tigers have to add a first round level talent to their system, at all.

So don't be surprised if the Tigers can afford to purchase Cespedes' efforts even after making the Fielder deal. It makes good sense.