Yoelkis, 19, shows off bat, arm, speed for Cuba in Caribbean Series
By Jesse Sanchez
CULIACAN, Mexico -- The bright orange wrist bands, the blue socks pulled up high, and the way he looked down at the grass and strutted back to his position in the outfield were the first clues.
Yoelkis Cespedes Maceo's face, especially those eyebrows, looked young, but familiar. And that throwing arm -- the one he used to double off a runner at first base after a running catch in right in the bottom of the third inning -- was the final hint.
Yoelkis, the younger half-brother of Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes Milanes, brought the family swagger to the Caribbean Series on Wednesday. Yoelkis' Cuban team from Granma defeated the Dominican Republic's Tigres de Licey, 4-0, in the first game of the annual tournament of winter league champions.
"They've told me that I'm a five-tool player," Yoelkis, 19, said. "I pay attention to those people, but I don't get overconfident because of that."
All eyes were on Yoelkis when he took a few vicious swings and eventually fouled out to the catcher in his first at-bat in the third inning. The right-handed batter with the familiar stance hit a single to center field to load the bases in the fifth inning, and he later scored from second later in the inning on double by center fielder Roel Santos to give Cuba a 4-0 lead. He finished 1-for-4 with a run scored.
Although Yoenis will not be in Culiacan this week to watch his younger brother play, he'll probably give him a call or send him a text because, "he always calls me to tell me what I'm doing right or wrong," Yoelkis said.
It's true that the younger and slimmer Cespedes is only 5-foot-9 and weighs 187 pounds, and he's dwarfed by his hulking 5-foot-10, 220-pound older brother. But back in 2009, Yoenis, now 31, was listed on Cuba's World Baseball Classic roster at 5-foot-10, and an identical 187 pounds.
"Yes, I'm pressured by that," Yoelkis said of the comparisons to his brother. "Like I said before, they compare me to my brother, and that motivates me to be a better player."
Back in Cuba, he is considered one of the top prospects on the island, and some baseball experts have gone as far as to claim he is better than Yoenis was at the same age. Yoelkis hit .304 with five home runs, eight doubles and 25 RBIs in 45 games in the first half of the season for Granma. He posted a .362 on-base percentage and slugged .525 with an .887 OPS. The speedster also hit six triples.
The young outfielder hit .329 with one home run and 10 RBIs in the second half of the season. Yoenis hit .333 with 33 home runs, 99 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 90 games during his final season with Granma in 2010-11.
"That young man is an excellent prospect," veteran Cuban outfielder Alfredo Despaigne said of Yoelkis. "He has some abilities and potential that's incredible. He's fast and has a good arm. He's still very young, and he has to keep on working, but I expect him to be a great hitter for us, for our baseball."
Despaigne should know. He played with Yoenis with Granma for eight seasons starting in 2003, and he still considers the Mets' outfielder one of his best friends.
Yoenis' story is well-documented. He defected from Cuba in the summer of 2011 and signed with Oakland the next year. He played with the A's for 2 1/2 seasons until he was traded to the Red Sox at the non-waiver Trade Deadline in the summer of 2014. He was traded to the Tigers later that year and then traded again, this time to the Mets, at the Deadline in 2015.
Yoenis signed a one-year deal with the Mets in 2016, and a four-year deal worth $110 million this past November.
Overall, Yoenis has already made more than $60 million during his five-year big league career. In contrast, most players in Cuba's Serie Nacional, including his younger brother, make from $20-$40 per month.
Yoelkis could have other opportunities in the future. Cuban players are allowed to play in professional leagues outside of Cuba and the United States if they pay the government part of their contract. Despaigne has played in Mexico. He played the last three seasons in Japan and is likely going back. It's unclear what the future holds for the younger Cespedes.
"Well, as of now, I've never thought of leaving my country," Yoelkis said. "I only think about leaving the country only when it's with the Cuban team."
Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.