He has been called "The Showcase." He's so mysterious that no one is quite sure how to spell his name. And he is coming to MLB.
Yoenis Céspedes is not just the latest baseball player to defect from Cuba—he is being called the best position player to emerge from the island in a generation. The American baseball community is on pins and needles about where he'll play—and how much money will be thrown at the talented outfielder. The most recent reports indicate that his services will be awarded to one of six teams: the Cubs, Indians, Marlins, Orioles, Tigers, and White Sox.
All six of these teams have needs in the outfield, which obviously explains their interest. But only one absolutely needs Céspedes. It's the Miami Marlins, and after the spending spree that that team perpetrated at last month's Winter Meetings, it will be a major disappointment if they don't land him.
You see, the Marlins are writing a new chapter in the annals of franchise history. They've rebranded themselves from "Florida Marlins" to "Miami Marlins" in conjunction with the debut of a much-hyped new ballpark in 2012. As evidenced by their free-agent binge, they're seizing the moment to transform a moribund franchise into a competitive, popular team that South Florida can be proud of. But to build a consistently strong fan base, they need more than a contending team. They need a smart business approach.
Yoenis Céspedes fits the second objective just as well as he does the first. Few places in the United States are so synonymous with a given ethnicity or immigrant community as Miami is with Cuban-Americans. As of the 2010 census, Miami-Dade County was 34.3% Cuban, outnumbering other Hispanic ethnicities (30.7%) and almost eclipsing all non-Hispanic ethnicities combined (35%). It is the unquestioned epicenter of Cuban culture in the US; in fact, Miami-Dade contains 47.9% of all Cuban-Americans nationwide. (My favorite stat: of the 101 cities with the highest Cuban-American population, 97 are in South Florida.) For the Marlins to truly become Miami's team, they need to make fans out of this community.
With Cuba's rich baseball tradition, it shouldn't be an uphill battle to do so. But the single biggest step toward capturing that market would be to sign the most exciting Cuban player in the game today. Hometown heroes have always been a valuable commodity in baseball, from Tony Gwynn to Jason Heyward. Céspedes isn't a conventional hometown hero, of course, but to Florida's million-plus Cuban-Americans, he might as well be. Already a hero among Cuban-American baseball fans, he would drive them to the seats on a regular basis if he makes New Marlins Ballpark his home. He's a natural fit for a fan favorite in Miami like nowhere else; if the team wants to sell jerseys, they'd do well to make sure his name is on one of them. And how better to build a long-term fan base than to get the children of your city on board? Kids in particular will seek out a baseball idol whom they can relate to; Céspedes is that for Miami's young Cuban-Americans.
Signing Céspedes could be an even bigger boon for the Marlins than that, though. If Céspedes becomes the superstar he is projected to be, he'll earn the admiration of Cuban-Americans nationwide, giving the Marlins the chance to be a team with national appeal. The Mariners and Red Sox cashed in on Ichiro Suzuki's and Daisuke Matsuzaka's popularity in Japan in much the same way.
Some may call this pandering, and that's understandable. Bitterness arose when it appeared that the team coveted Albert Pujols over Prince Fielder because the latter was not Latino (although those in the know dismiss such theories). But while the Marlins certainly shouldn't discriminate against any players for their ethnicity, it's perfectly all right for them to put in extra effort to woo a player who jibes with their natural constituency. Even as, yes, the team makes money from the marriage, it also does a service to the largest segment of its fan base. It gives them a player they can relate to—someone who, like them or their ancestors, escaped from communist rule to make a better life; someone who is more likely than either Fielder or Pujols to make inroads, or even a permanent home, in their community. (Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan, for example, has used her success for her hometown's benefit; she's active in Miami as a businessowner, philanthropist, and activist.)
Indeed, landing in Miami is also probably a good outcome for Céspedes himself. Players making the leap from Nippon Professional Baseball often speak of a comfort level achieved by joining teams with other Japanese players; a Cuban defector would likely have a similar desire to feel at home. Granted, Céspedes would probably be "most comfortable" in whatever city offers him the most money, but if that's Miami, he could count on a community and culture that he can relate to just as much as they can relate to him.
Despite all the sense this makes, there is also the sense that Miami may be reluctant to pay Céspedes's rumored asking price ($50 million guaranteed for an MLB rookie is, to put it mildly, risky). But if there is any team for which Céspedes is worth the steep investment, it is the Marlins; indeed, it would be foolish of them not to capitalize on one of the few regional advantages that they do have. At the very least, the Marlins understand the exciting possibilities that Céspedes represents for them: team president David Samson put it best recently when he quite rightly declared, "He should not be anywhere but Miami."