Signed OF-R Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $110 million contract. [11/29]
This past October, the Mets made the playoffs for the second consecutive season, something the diehards wouldn’t dare let you forget but you may not have considered unless you follow the team closely. Often the butt of jokes–even before the Wilpons and their creepy, greedy ways–they were, are, and will probably ever remain the second-class baseball citizens of New York. The team, historically, compensates by star-hunting.
If the farm can’t build one (Tom Seaver, Doc Gooden, David Wright), then they go out and find one (Bobby Bonilla, Mike Piazza, Carlos Beltran). In 2015, when the team was flailing and looking for a last push to make the playoffs, they found one they didn’t exactly expect or plan for in Cespedes. The main reason the Mets didn’t really know they were getting a star in Cespedes is that he wasn’t a star before he came to New York.
That’s crazy to think about, given his predilection for outlandish events, his almost-superhuman physique, and his larger-than-life demeanor. But he was a bit better than an average outfielder before he came to the Tigers, not the full La Potencia experience. Sure, he had a very good rookie season in 2012, but so did our greatest living ballplayer. After that five-win coming-out party, he regressed a bit into what we thought he would be: a high-power, low-OBP slugger who graded out a bit above average and occasionally flashed an arm that would make even Jesse Barfield stand up and take notice.
In 2015 with Detroit, something changed. Cespedes advanced his own cause by reaching base more often. He improved his batting average–which more importantly improved his OBP–and played the outfield better than he ever had before. He looked a lot closer to the sterling hitter he was in 2012. So when the Mets, desperate for some sort of spark, came calling at the trade deadline, the Tigers pried then-prospect and now Rookie of the Year winner Michael Fulmer away in exchange for what Cespedes had been and could be. He was a two-month rental for a team that hoped he could be electric.
He was, in fact, electric. You know the narrative, that his appearance energized a team that had need for both his power and his starlight. But the Cespedes that started playing for the Mets was another level and now he was ready to leverage every last bit of that physique into earth-shattering power. He hit 17 homers with the Mets, just one fewer than he hit with the Tigers in nearly twice as many games, and the two-month rental turned into a three-month one when the Mets improbably made the playoffs and even more improbably won their first pennant since 2000.
Last offseason there was a weird free agent deal with a one-year opt-out, and even though Cespedes wasn’t quite the same hitter he was in his first 60-plus games with the team, he was something close, posting his best full-season True Average of .326. He had arrived as one of the league’s premier power hitters, and a cornerstone of his new home team. Of course Cespedes opted out of his deal, despite all the public comments that he loved the Mets and wanted to stay with the squad–the market was too rich, and some brilliant analysts named him the best player in a weak free agent class. Like any good legend, enough of what Cespedes said was true to make it worthwhile. The Mets ended up offering four years and $110 million, an average annual value of $27.5 million that topped every position player in history save his former teammate Miguel Cabrera.
But the deal runs for four years only, which means it will potentially avoid the pitfalls that come with paying premium dollars to players in their late 30s. That’s not to say that this deal can’t fail–Cespedes’ athleticism is key to him maintaining any sort of defensive value, and he’s come down from heights like this before. He takes plays and days off. And one could even argue that with Michael Conforto, Jay Bruce, and Curtis Granderson on the team, they didn’t need to invest this kind of money in Cespede. Perhaps they instead needed to bring back a different former Met in Justin Turner.
It’s hard to be rational when breaking down Cespedes, who plays with the kind of vigor I hope to bring to the greatest things in my life: family, baseball, all the rest of the stuff. This is a lot of money to pay for a player who hasn’t been a star performer for long, and who may not stay one forever. But it’s also the kind of move that is eminently Mets, relying on gut and flash and the big name over perhaps what the team really should do. (My plan of attack for this team involved bringing back Cespedes, but also bringing in Kenley Jansen. I’m a dreamer, and therefore an eminently appropriate Mets fan.) This is likely to be the Mets’ biggest move of the offseason, if not their only one; the attempt to capitalize on successes past and drive successes future. It might not work, but it will be fun to watch.
The hot stove has picked up and the first, biggest domino has fallen. It’s a superstar re-signing with his old team, a move that doesn’t exactly tickle the fancy of people who refresh sites like this one with sweaty, desperate fingers. (I am one of these people.) But it opens up the floodgates, sets the market, whatever tired turn of phrase you want to use. With this out of the way, now the real fun can begin. For the rest of the league, that’s seeing where everyone else will go. For the Mets and their fans, the fun is in Cespedes’ bat flips, his awesome power, and most of all, in the team’s commitment to building something that resembles a contender.