Opening Day is more than two months away, but the Mets have already started the 2016 season with a big home run. Yoenis Cespedes, whose acquisition at the July 31 trade deadline helped power the cash-strapped club to its first National League pennant since 2000 but whose stay wasn’t expected to go past the World Series, has returned to the fold via a three-year, $75 million contract, one that includes an opt-out after the first year. Whether he leaves after 2016 or finishes out the deal, this is quite a coup for the Mets.
Acquired from the Tigers in exchange for a pair of pitching prospects, the now-30-year-old Cespedes hit .287/.337/.604 with 17 homers in 57 games for the Mets, who traded for him only after a deal for the Brewers’ Carlos Gomez unraveled two days prior to the deadline. New York was 52–50 at the time and trailed the Nationals by three games in the NL East race when it acquired Cespedes, with the offense wheezing along at 3.56 runs per game. But with the slugger in the lineup, primarily in centerfield, the Mets went 38–22 the rest of the way, averaging 5.27 runs per game and leaving the Nationals in the dust—though to be fair, the returns of David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud from injury and the arrival of rookie Michael Conforto provided boosts as well. Still, Cespedes brought a level of star power that the lineup had not boasted in years, particularly as he reeled off 15 homers in a 22-start span from Aug. 21 to Sept. 24.
Cespedes finished the season with career highs in homers (35) and Wins Above Replacement (6.3) via a .291/.328/.542 batting line, a 137 OPS+ and 11 Defensive Runs Saved. In his four-year major league career since defecting from Cuba, he has hit .271/.319/.486 for a 122 OPS+, averaging 26 homers and 4.0 WAR per year. Originally signed by the Athletics, he was traded to the Red Sox on July 31, 2014, then to the Tigers on Dec. 11 of that year before being dealt last July.
As with the other top dollar free-agent position players besides Jason Heyward, Cespedes’s market developed more slowly than those of the frontline pitchers, all of whom signed their big deals in December. While Cespedes had been connected to several teams—including the Angels, Tigers, Padres, Orioles, White Sox and most recently the Nationals—it wasn’t until after Chris Davis and Justin Upton came off the board over the past week that his market picked up steam. In the past couple of days, it appeared that a deal with the Nationals was most likely: They were reported to be offering around $100 million over five years, with a significant portion of the money deferred, as with last winter’s Max Scherzer contract. The Mets weren’t willing to go past three years, a length that made no sense without an opt-out clause allowing him to re-enter a much less competitive free agent market next winter.
Via Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, Cespedes's deal has that opt-out, as well as a full no-trade clause and a front-loaded 2016 salary of $27.5 million, meaning that the other two years average $23.75 million. If Cespedes opts out and signs elsewhere, he’ll cost his new team a draft pick, assuming the Mets make a qualifying offer of around $16 million (a no-brainer, as he’s not opting out to take a 40% pay cut), whereas whichever team signed him this winter would not have lost a pick, since players traded in mid-season are prohibited from receiving qualifying offers.
On the surface, the 2016 salary and the $25 million average salary may seem steep, but the contract’s length makes this significantly less risky than the Davis or Upton deals, both of which run for at least twice as many years. After all, it’s much easier to project three years into the future than six, and a player in his early thirties is at a lower risk of a steep decline than one in his mid or late thirties. Our What's He Really Worth model—which uses a player’s last three years of performance, estimates of the market cost for a win ($6.5 million for 2015), a 5.4% rate of inflation and a decline of 0.5 WAR per year for its aging curve—projects him to be worth $84.2 million over the next three seasons:
In other words, it doesn't take a best-case scenario for this to be a good deal, and it might turn out to be a bargain, particularly for a team that appeared likely to enter the season with a low-wattage platoon of Juan Lagares and Alejandro De Aza in centerfield. Cespedes isn’t an ideal centerfielder, as he illustrated on several occasions in the postseason; he’s 17 runs below average in 104 career games there, 22 below average per 1,200 innings (around 135 games). The Mets don’t have to play him in center every day, however. Manager Terry Collins can sit the lefty-swinging Conforto against southpaws, shifting Cespedes to left (where he's +11 DRS per 1,200 innings) and playing the righty-swinging Lagares (+25 DRS per 1,200 innings) in center. The Mets used an arrangement along those lines for the last two months of the season and the postseason; with the caveat that it’s based on a small sample of games, Cespedes was -4 runs in center, +4 runs in leftfield.
With Cespedes back in the fold, the biggest changes to the lineup that took the Mets to the World Series will be in the middle infield. In December, the team traded pitcher Jon Niese to the Pirates for second baseman Neil Walker and signed free-agent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, a pair that could provide a significant defensive upgrade on Daniel Murphy and the Wilmer Flores/Ruben Tejada tandem. Add that to a rotation that should have full complements of innings from Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz, plus the return of Zack Wheeler from Tommy John surgery, along with holdovers Jacob deGrom and Bartolo Colon, and it's easy to see the team as favorites in the NL East, particularly given the frustrating winter that the Nationals have experienced. In addition to being spurned by Cespedes, they fell short in attempts to add free agents Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Darren O'Day, though they did sign Murphy.
Between keeping him away from the Nationals, not losing a draft pick to sign him and upgrading over a light-hitting platoon, Cespedes’s return is already a boon for the Mets, but it should become an even bigger one in the eyes of fans frustrated by the team’s frugality in recent years. For the past three years, owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz have forced general manager Sandy Alderson to field a team that’s payroll was in the lower third of the majors despite sharing its largest market. Between the settlement from the Bernie Madoff scandal and nearly $900 million in loans against the team and its majority stake in SNY, the Mets have been forced to divert revenue from baseball and television into financing their debt instead of reinvesting it in the team. With Cespedes, their payroll suddenly projects to around $140 million, which would be its highest since 2011, when the long-departed likes of Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran and Jason Bay were the team’s highest-paid players but rarely on the field due to injuries.
Cespedes won’t make that debt disappear overnight, but with his return, the Mets have retained the bulk of their pennant-winning core and changed the narrative that has surrounded the franchise for the past half decade. A return trip to the World Series is no guarantee, but their chances of doing so just got a whole lot better.