I don’t think so.
Because not only was Cespedes not the best international signing of the offseason; he wasn’t even the best international outfield signing of the offseason. That honor goes to Norichika Aoki of the Brewers. Milwaukee secured his posting rights for just $2.5 million this offseason, and then agreed to a scant 2-year, $2.25 million deal with the 30-year old Japanese batting champ. Originally, the Brew Crew intended to use Aoki as a fourth outfielder, but he quickly played his way into the starting lineup. So let's take a look at how these two outfielders plucked off the international market compare thus far in 2012.
So far, he has a .289/.359/.430 line, playing mostly right field. While those numbers look good, they don’t seem to stack up against Cespedes’s, especially not in the hitter friendly confines of Miller Park. Aoki’s OPS+, (OPS adjusted for league and park factors, with a league average of 100) is a solid 110, but nowhere near Cespedes, who comes in at a healthy 131. But despite this, Baseball Reference credits Aoki with 2.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), while valuing Cespedes at just 2.0 WAR. WAR is useful in player comparisons, since it's designed to measure how many overall wins a player contributed to his team above what a replacement player (Like veteran AAA or AAAA player) would over the course of a season. So how is it possible that a OK hitting outfielder is contributing 1 WAR more than another better hitting outfielder?
There are a number of reasons why WAR values Aoki so highly. First off, while OPS+ is extremely useful, it does overvalue slugging. Even though OBP is more important to creating runs than slugging, it makes up less than half of OPS, leading to power hitters getting a slight advantage. Since WAR works off Runs Created, it takes this into account and boosts Aoki up slightly, although his offensive WAR is still lower than Cespedes’s, 2.3 to 3.3. The big difference in their WAR is attributed to defense. Baseball Reference uses Total Zone Fielding metrics in their WAR calculations, which rate Cespedes as being an absolutely terrible fielder, and Aoki as being just about average. That leads to the higher overall WAR for Aoki.
I’m not sure I totally agree with the advanced defensive metrics on that comparison, but generally speaking, I'm inclined to think Aoki has had a better year than Cespedes thus far. Even if you do think Cespedes was better, how much better could he possibly have been? Milwaukee is paying $2.375 a year for their production, while Oakland is spending $9 million. I certainly don’t see Cespedes as being worth $6 million more than Aoki. The Brewers are spending less than $1 million per WAR, while the A’s are spending 4.5 million, or right around market value.
I’m not attempting to criticize the A’s for signing Cespedes. He’s been a good fit for them and still has considerable upside. But for the same money, they could of went out and competed for any number of established MLB hitters: Michael Cuddyer, Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel, Aramis Ramirez, and Jimmy Rollins all recently signed comparable contracts and put up similar or better production. But the Brewers also found a nice fit for themselves in Aoki, and they’re paying him a salary normally reserved for bench players and relievers on the free agent market. While the A's are getting about market value, the Brewers are gettting much, much more.
It looks like both organizations got a good outfielder off the always risky international market; but I think the Brewers made the better deal.