- For the second off-season in a row, Yoenis Cespedes is headed back to New York, this time on a high-priced but short deal that should keep the Mets relevant in 2017 and beyond.
For the second time in less than a year, Yoenis Cespedes has opted back in, so to speak. Less than a month after re-entering the free-agent market via the opt-out clause in the contract he signed back in January, the 31-year-old slugger has agreed to return to the Mets via a four-year, $110 million deal. The contract makes him the game's second-highest-paid position player in terms of average annual value, but its relatively short term mitigates some of its downside. It’s a move that keeps the Mets as viable contenders in the NL East and one that bolsters the credibility of the brass with the team's fan base.
The Mets originally acquired Cespedes from the Tigers for two pitching prospects—Luis Cessa and 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer—on July 31, 2015, and the Cuban slugger took the Big Apple by storm, bashing 17 homers in 57 games and hitting .287/.337/.604, a performance that helped the team to its first NL East title since 2006 and first pennant in 15 years. As part of an agreement included in his original contract with the Athletics in 2012, Cespedes was allowed to enter free agency after the season despite having just four years of service time. A return appeared unlikely, but amid a crowded market, he wound up agreeing to a three-year, $75 million deal in late January—one that deal included an opt-out after the 2016 season, during which he received $17.5 million salary plus a $10 million signing bonus.
Even after Cespedes said in late August that he intended to finish out his three-year deal in New York, the relative weakness of this year's free-agent class virtually guaranteed he’d re-enter the market if he finished the season in one piece. Though he slumped to .214/.297/.379 in September, he finished with a .280/.354/.530 line, with 31 homers, a 133 OPS+ and 2.9 Wins Above Replacement in 132 games; he missed time due to a right quad strain and other ailments. Despite losing rotation staples Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz as well as third baseman David Wright and second baseman Neil Walker to season-ending injuries, the Cespedes-led Mets finished with 87 wins and hosted the NL wild-card game but lost to the Giants, 3–0. Still, it was just the second time in franchise history that the team made back-to-back postseason appearances, and the attendance at Citi Field (2,789,602) was its highest since 2009, the ballpark's inaugural season.
Despite Cespedes opting out and rejecting the team's $17.2 million qualifying offer, the Mets went into this off-season with far more optimism regarding his return. They managed to retain him despite a belief that somebody from among the Nationals (who pursued him last winter), Yankees, Giants and Dodgers—all of whom expressed interest—would offer a fifth year, likely pushing the total value above $130 million.
It's notable that the Mets retained him without doing so, even if they did pay a premium. Via FanRag Sports’s Jon Heyman, Cespedes will receive $22.5 million in 2017, $29 million in '18 and '19 and $29.5 million in 2020; the deal covers his age-31–34 seasons. While four pitchers are currently under contracts that average at least $30 million per year, Miguel Cabrera is the only position player at more than $25 million; he's averaging $31 million via an eight-year, $248 million deal that only went into effect for 2016, his age-33 season.
Cespedes is nowhere near the hitter that Cabrera is, but he’s clearly a draw at the gate, and timing is everything when it comes to contracts. He’s in the right place at the right time as owner Fred Wilpon demonstrates the team’s renewed financial health, and the implication of the signing is that Wilpon has authorized general manager Sandy Alderson to push payroll beyond the team’s 2016 Opening Day mark of $135.2 million, up from $101.3 million in ’15 and ‘$84.95 million in ’14 (all figures from Cot’s Contracts). The Mets may not be paying Yankees-level salaries, but relative to the size of their market, their payrolls are no longer the laughingstock of the league: Via ESPN’s Adam Rubin, they’re above $145 million, though a possible trade from their outfield surplus (more on which below) could reduce that.
Will Cespedes’s deal be worth it? Dusting off our What's He Really Worth model (which takes into account a player's last three years of performance, estimates of the market cost for a win, the rate of inflation and an age-related decline), we can get an estimate—or several, depending upon how we tweak the parameters. A 5/4/3 weighted average for Cespedes’s last three seasons yields an expected value of 4.3 WAR, which means improving upon his 2016 performance (more on which momentarily). Figure a loss of 0.5 WAR per year for age-related decline, a 2016 value of $6.85 million per win and an inflation rate of 5.4%—the inputs Cliff Corcoran and I used for the model this past year—and we're already very near the mark when it comes to the actual terms of the deal.
Tom Tango—who invented the weighted-average Marcel projection system (“the most basic forecasting system you can have, that uses as little intelligence as possible”) that I use here—has suggested a better model with regards to weighting, WAR and decline, using a 6/3/1 weighting for a player’s past three seasons, a 20% regression in the first year (0.8 times that weighted WAR) and an age-related falloff based on a 0.4 WAR per year, adding 0.1 WAR for each year under 30 (so 0.3 for a 29-year-old) and subtracting 0.1 WAR for each year over 30. Using that gives a vastly different picture.
Ouch. But before we slam that deal, it’s worth noting that Cespedes’s 2016 value was suppressed considerably by his play in centerfield. Not only is he physically stretched there—the position takes a toll on his legs—but he’s also horrific according to the defensive metrics. Via Defensive Runs Saved, he's been 10 runs above average per 1,200 innings (Baseball-Reference’s preferred proration, roughly 135 games) in leftfield during his career, compared to 20 runs per 1,200 innings below average in center. Via Ultimate Zone Rating, which FanGraphs prorates to 150 games, the numbers are +13 in leftfield and -19 in center. Either way, this is about a three-wins-per-year difference even before you factor in the difference in availability that results from playing the harder position.
Given that 60% of the baseline estimate is based on the most recent season, it’s worth fussing over that number rather than worrying if our cost of a win is off (I’ve seen figures ranging from $7 to $8 million). Taking one more stab while using a conservative assumption that his WAR would have been 1.3 wins higher had he been confined to leftfield in 2016—that’s the gap between his 2016 defensive WAR (DRS plus position adjustment) and both his 2014 and 2015 dWARs while playing mostly leftfield—yields this.
That’s more like it. It’s still an overpay, but not an egregious one. By this methodology, the Mets are paying a 25% premium for a shorter-term deal with a player whose retention buys them credibility with a fan base that has been understandably critical of their recent spending.
The bigger problem isn’t the money, then, but New York's mismatched collection of outfield parts, with Michael Conforto, Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson already on the roster. All bat lefthanded and all are better suited for corner outfield work. Granderson was solid within the limited sample of his centerfield work in 2016 (+1 DRS/0 UZR in 36 games), but that was the most time he's spent at the position since 2012, and he'll turn 36 on March 16. Conforto has just six games of experience in center, and Bruce has just 36, all but one of which was in 2008.
What's more, both Granderson ($15 million) and Bruce ($13 million) will make substantial money in 2017, their final season before free agency. Trading Conforto, who will be 24 next season and hit just .220/.310/.414 with 12 homers and 0.4 WAR in 2016, would mean selling low on the tenth pick of the 2014 draft. Trading Bruce, who will be 30 in April, is the more likely scenario. He’s coming off an uneven .250/.309/.506 season with 33 homers and a 112 OPS+ but -11 DRS in rightfield and just 0.6 WAR, which might mean eating a few million dollars in salary or taking on an equivalent contract for a player attached to low expectations in return.
It's also worth noting that the team does have the righty-swinging Juan Lagares under club control through 2020, making $4.5 million in '17; he's coming off a dismal season at the plate (.239/.301/.380 for an 81 OPS+) but was still outstanding afield (+8 DRS in just 325 2/3 innings spread over 68 games in center). An alignment of Conforto (who has the weaker arm than Cespedes) in left, Granderson (backed by Lagares) in center and Cespedes in right is probably the closest thing the Mets have got to an optimal arrangement assuming they trade Bruce, and even then, another righthanded bat would be welcome.
An outfield surplus isn't the worst thing for a team to have or a particularly worrisome problem when the calendar hasn't even hit December. Between the retention of Cespedes and Walker, who accepted the Mets' qualifying offer, the team has checked off two of its top priorities for the off-season. Bolstering the rotation—where the Mets have to replace Bartolo Colon's 191 2/3 innings and account for the likelihood that Harvey, deGrom and Matz are no lock to combine for 500 innings (they combined for 373 innings in 2016)—is a priority. So is fortifying the bullpen, particularly with Jeurys Familia likely to receive a substantial suspension under the league's domestic violence policy. Alderson's work is hardly done, but against the backdrop of a relatively barren free-agent market, it just got a lot easier.