Coming off the best season of his career in 2015, does Yoenis Cespedes deserve a Jason Heyward-sized deal in free agency this winter?
With just six weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, several of this off-season’s top free-agent hitters remain unsigned. We’ve already taken a look at the top two infielders through the lens of our "What’s He Really Worth?" system, projecting big dollars but sharp declines for both Chris Davis and Ian Desmond. Today, we shift our focus to the outfield to run Yoenis Cespedes through the system.
Along with Justin Upton and Alex Gordon, Cespedes is one of three major free-agent outfielders still available. Three weeks ago, I compared the three, concluding that the Upton, who is two years younger than Cespedes and 3 1/2 years younger than Gordon, “is likely to be the better investment over the long term, making him a wiser investment for a team looking to contend regularly over the next five years,” but added that “Cespedes could have the larger impact in the short term for a team looking for an impact player to help bring them a title in 2016.” Cespedes also has the most star power of the three, as he's coming off a career-best season in which he served as something of a savior for a Mets team that wound up winning its first pennant in 15 years.
Indeed, Cespedes, who turned 30 in October, had the best 2015 season of the trio. Splitting his time between the Tigers and Mets, Cespedes hit .291/.328/.542 (137 OPS+) with 35 home runs and 105 RBIs—the slugging, home run and RBI marks were all career highs. Despite switching leagues at the end of July, Cespedes won (deservedly) the American League Gold Glove for leftfield (snapping Gordon’s four-year streak at the position) and picked up seven NL MVP votes, two of them for sixth place (and none of them from the two New York writers who voted for the award) after slugging .604 with 17 home runs for the Mets in 57 games after the trade.
Cespedes is undeniably talented. His raw power at the plate, throwing arm in the outfield and speed on the bases are all elite, and he capably manned centerfield for the Mets down the stretch. But there remains a gap between Cespedes’s talent and his performance. For all of his speed, he is not an impact base stealer, having failed to swipe more than seven bags in any of the last three years and succeeding at a mere 60% rate over those three seasons. His fielding can be erratic, and his power is undermined by a poor walk rate, which has declined steadily from 8.0% in his rookie year of 2012—exactly league average that season—to 4.9% in '15.
Those last two factors are a large part of the reason why it would be foolish to presume that Cespedes is going to put up another 6-plus WAR season in 2016. Fortunately, our system, which projects performance for the coming year using a 5/4/3 weighting of a player’s last three season, is not so presumptuous. Averaging five times Cespedes’s outstanding 6.3 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) from this past season with four times his 4.1 bWAR from 2014 and three times his disappointing 1.5 bWAR from '13, we get a 4.4 bWAR projection for Cespedes next year.
With that projection, we can bring in the expected value of a marginal win (that is, one Win Above Replacement, or one point of WAR) for the 2016 season based on the established market value of a marginal win. ESPN’s Dan Szymborski estimated the market price of a marginal win for 2015 to be $6.5 million. Adding 5.4% annual inflation gives us $6.851 million per win for 2016 and gives Cespedes a projected value of $30,144,400 million for the coming season. We can then extend that projection forward, increasing the value of a win annually using that 5.4% inflation and approximating the decline of a player in his thirties by subtracting 0.5 bWAR from Cespedes’s value for each successive season. Doing so gives us this result:
Our system projects Cespedes out to a deal worth $170.9 million over nine years, but the longest contract handed out thus far this off-season was an eight-year deal to Jason Heyward, who is four years younger. That makes it extremely unlikely that any team is going to go nine years on the Cuban slugger (or eight, for that matter). Cespedes’s total value through seven years would be $157.8 million, however, and something in the range of six or seven years and $150 million seems far more likely. David Price, who is less than two months older than Cespedes, is the only other free agent to sign for as many as seven years this off-season, and both he and Heyward have opt-outs in their contracts after three years. A similar clause would make a lot of sense for a team hoping to sign Cespedes, given my comments above about him being perhaps the best short-term option among the three big outfielders remaining on the market.
Per the above numbers, Cespedes projects to be worth $84 million over the next three years; a team could rig a favorable contract by making him a six- or seven-year offer worth close to $150 million with an opt-out after the third year. The team could also structure the payout such that Cespedes would make less than that $84 million in the first three years (say $75 million, an even $25 million per year). Cespedes would then have the option of re-entering free agency after his age-32 season—something history tells us he’d surely do if healthy—with the result being that the team that signs him this winter could get his three best remaining seasons at less than market price. That’s a gamble, but it's one that would be worth taking.