Yoelqui Cespedes facing challenges, but ‘sky is limit for this kid,’ White Sox say

“He’s going to figure it out,” Winston-Salem manager Ryan Newman said. “He has that mindset where once it clicks, it’s going to click fast.”

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Yoelqui Cespedes hits a double down the left field line during an Arizona Fall League game which contributed to his Glendale Desert Dogs victory at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Monday. For Sun-Times/John Antonoff

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Maybe it’s the name.

Perhaps it’s the tools.

Or maybe it’s the things Yoelqui Cespedes does on the field that capture the imagination and make it easy to picture him as a fixture in right field for the White Sox in the not-too-distant future.

Most likely not in 2022 — Cespedes needs to see a consistent diet of power arms to polish his bat, and maybe more than a full season — but many see the 24-year-old half-brother of Yoenis Cespedes planting roots in a corner of the Guaranteed Rate Field outfield grass.

Cespedes shares that vision.

“Yes. I am working hard every day to try to get to that spot,” he told the Sun-Times through a translator at Salt River Fields before playing left field for the Glendale Desert Dogs this week.

Cespedes wants to be there next season, but with all of 72 games played between High-A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham, he needs more time. And his numbers haven’t jumped off his Baseball Reference page, leaving some to already wonder if he’ll meet the expectation that came with his tool set when he signed a $2.05 million deal as MLB’s No. 2 international prospect in January.

But maybe the 5-9, 205-pound thick package of tools deserves some slack. After defecting from Cuba while playing in the Can-Am League in New York in 2019, Cespedes missed the 2020 season because of the pandemic, then got a delayed start to 2021 because of visa issues. Strike-zone judgment became an issue when he did get going at Winston-Salem. But it’s too soon to draw conclusions, Sox assistant general manager and player development director Chris Getz said.

At Winston-Salem, Cespedes slashed .278/.355/.495 with seven homers and 17 doubles in 199 plate appearances after a slow start. He hit .298/.340/.404 with one homer and three doubles in 100 plate appearances for Birmingham.

“There was production; it’s not like there were no positives,” Getz said. “He can play center field, he has instincts on the basepaths and he’s got power. Can he expand the zone? He can. Does he need to shorten some moves and simplify some things mechanically? He does.

“But he hits rockets — you see the power. Is there going to be enough power production and enough contact on a regular basis? That’s what we’re focusing on right now and that’s what we’re optimistic about.”

Cespedes says managing the strike zone is his biggest challenge, and it is continuing in the Arizona Fall League with a .234 average, no homers, three doubles and 13 strikeouts in his first 47 at-bats. But his confidence hasn’t wavered.

“There have been highs and lows,” Cespedes said before going 1-for-3 with a double and hit by pitch and stealing third base on Monday. “If anyone starts to critique my play I’m going to ignore them and stay focused on my game. I know I can do it.”

The next day, Cespedes moved up to third in the lineup, played right field and hit two sharp singles and lined out to third base. The Sox gave him a roster spot in the Fall League to catch up on the at-bats he missed while waiting through the visa issue and to let him face some of the best arms in the minor leagues.

“It’s a great experience because there are high-quality pitchers here,” said Cespedes, MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 Sox prospect behind 2021 first-round shortstop Colson Montgomery. “During the season I faced high-quality pitching, but they didn’t always execute and locate as they do here, so it is a bit of a jump.”

Marco Paddy, Sox special assistant to the general manager in charge of international scouting, was guarded about placing a timetable after Cespedes signed. But Paddy suggested the jump up the ranks could be quick, describing him as “advanced” and “close” to becoming a big-leaguer.

Cespedes’ maturity and makeup are already advanced according to Winston-Salem manager Ryan Newman and Birmingham manager Justin Jirschele. And his ability has been eye-opening.

“Talk about a kid with all the tools,” Newman said. “He’s going to be exciting and fun to watch.

“He’s very intelligent and has got a lot of direction from his brother — they’re very close. He’s very mature, and once he figures it out and makes the adjustment to how the game is played here in the States, we’re going to see him take off. Because this a guy who can run, he has the arm, he can play center field. Makes outstanding plays. And he has the pop — the numbers haven’t shown it on paper yet — but you watch this guy hit the ball, it sounds different.”

Sometimes it looks different, too. Newman recalled the time Cespedes, batting with a runner on third and the infield in during a minor-league spring-training intrasquad game, hit a ball so hard the opposing shortstop “actually jumped out of the way to save his life.”

“I had never seen that before,” Newman said. “That was a point in spring training where we all looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, OK, this is different.’ ’’

Newman also liked the way Cespedes carried himself and how, while soft-spoken, wasn’t afraid to speak up when a teammate didn’t hustle.

“I love helping other players, especially since I didn’t have a mentor coming up when I was a player,” Cespedes said. “So I like to be a leader and help them play the game the right way.”

“When he first got to us at Winston-Salem,” Newman said, “you could tell he was a pro. Especially for the Latin guys, he was a real good mentor for them.”

The expectation from the Sox camp is that Cespedes can play, too. His swing-and-miss rate was high, especially when his season started, but it improved during the season. Sox manager Tony La Russa, who watched Cespedes play in Fall League games alongside vice president Ken Williams this week, bristled at suggestions Cespedes has looked overmatched at times.

“That’s BS,” said La Russa, who laid eyes on Cespedes at spring training. “He’s a real good-looking hitter.

“Whoever told you that, put an X next to his name, I’m not listening to his opinion any more.”

All he needs, Newman said, is to see more mid-to-upper 90s mph velocity and more sharp breaking pitches.

“He’s going to figure it out,” Newman said. “He has that mindset where once it clicks, it’s going to click fast.”

Jirschele calls him “soft-spoken but plays with his hair on fire. And the tools speak for themselves.”

“His approach offensively is only going to mature,” said Jirschele, a former hitting coach. “He’d be first to tell you he’s seen some stuff this year he’s never seen before.

“The sky is the limit for this kid. The tools are off the charts and he’s an electric player both offensively and defensively. And he runs the bases extremely well. You see the complete package with him.”

The latest in a rich Cuban connection to the South Side, a link that began with Minnie Minoso, continued with Jose Contreras and Alexei Ramirez and still thrives with Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert, Cespedes keeps in close touch with Robert and Dominican-born Eloy Jimenez.

“All we talk about is baseball,” Cespedes said.

And having Yoenis to talk to has been a boon. Living up to his name is not a burden to bear by any means.

“I feel zero pressure to be like my brother,” he said. “I want to create my own path, put up my own numbers, my own story and create my own career so I don’t have to live up to my brother’s.”

Have at it, Yoelqui. We’ll all be watching.

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