Yoenis Cespedes spoke with conviction Friday.
He guaranteed the Oakland A’s would return to the postseason. He talked of his desire for a contract extension after his current deal runs out following the 2015 season. Most of all, the left fielder talked about the individual improvement he wants to make after a disappointing 2013 season.
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Cespedes’ second major league campaign resulted in a .240 batting average, 26 home runs and 80 RBI. Those numbers weren’t awful, and Cespedes did hit .381 in the five-game A.L. Division Series against Detroit. But it wasn’t what most people – himself included -- expected after his promising rookie season of 2012.
“I think I should have been a little more strong-minded,” Cespedes said during a media session in advance of Saturday’s FanFest. “As an athlete, when things are not going your way you have to be strong-minded, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I didn’t do so well last year.”
Players often talk big around this time. Spring camps are about to open and the slate is wiped clean. Renewal is in the air.
But Cespedes’ talk isn’t empty rhetoric in the context of how much the A’s fortunes will be linked to his performance.
Oakland’s offense delivered big-time last season, ranking third in the majors in homers (186) and fourth in runs (767). But there’s no guarantee, for instance, that Josh Donaldson will provide an MVP-caliber encore. Or that Coco Crisp will knock 22 homers again. Or that Brandon Moss will be a 30-homer man.
But Cespedes, even after a down year, remains the scariest hitter in the A’s lineup. And if he shows more plate discipline, lifts his average and cuts down on his strikeouts, that’s a big boost for the two-time defending American League West champs.
In 2012, as a rookie adjusting to better competition than he saw in his native Cuba, Cespedes hit .292 with 23 homers and 82 RBI. He showed gradual improvement as his season progressed. Last year, the same didn’t happen, as his average dropped 52 points and his on-base percentage 62 points to .294.
“(In 2012), they didn’t know me so well,” Cespedes said, speaking through interpreter Manolo Hernandez-Douen. “I could take advantage of that. The second year, they knew me a lot better and I was not capable of making the adjustments that I needed to.”
He says he intensified his offseason workouts and added weight. He was listed at 210 last season, now he’s 225. He also said he’s worked to shorten his swing. Asked if a more compact swing will diminish his power, last year’s Home Run Derby champ flashed some humor.
“Maybe if I (used to) hit a homer 430 feet, I’ll only hit it 410 feet. Now I know I’ll make better contact so I’ll do it more frequently.”
Quizzed about offseason speculation that the A’s might look to deal him, Cespedes professed his love for wearing green and gold. He has two years left on a four-year $36 million deal.
“I knew that Oakland was not gonna let me go,” Cespedes, 28, said. “What I would like is to finish my four years here in Oakland and maybe get an extension. Because the Athletics are the team that gave me an opportunity to play, and I will not forget that.”
But the decision is a two-way street. The A’s figure to use this season as a gauge for whether they would consider extending him after a mixed bag of results in his first two years.
A’s hitting coach Chili Davis said Cespedes puts in the work to excel, but that the key for him is between the ears.
“He’s a competitor, a very proud individual,” Davis said. “Over a 162-game schedule, we need him to maintain the focus more. Nobody maintains it the whole season, but (he needs) that same focus he had in the playoffs. It didn’t matter who was pitching. He was determined to beat them. That’s probably the one point I wanna make with him. If he comes in determined to maintain that focus, and stays healthy, he’s dangerous.”
Cespedes talked confidently about the A’s ability to three-peat as A.L. West champs.
“I don’t know if we’re gonna be the favorites, but I do know this: The Athletics are gonna be in the playoffs again.”
He’ll certainly have a say in whether that happens.