Can the New York Mets void outfielder Yoenis Cespedes’s contract?
Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen may soon need to answer this question.
On Monday, Van Wagenen revealed that Cespedes suffered multiple fractures in his right ankle after a “violent fall” on Cespedes’s ranch in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The incident, at least as told by Cespedes to Van Wagenen, occurred last Saturday when the 33-year-old outfielder accidentally stepped into a hole and badly twisted his ankle.
Cespedes, who in 2016 signed a four-year deal with the Mets worth $110 million, hasn’t played since July 20, 2018. He missed considerable time in the 2017 and 2018 seasons with hamstring, hip and heel injuries. Out of the Mets’ 324 regular-season games in 2017 and 2018, Cespedes missed 205 of them. He has also missed the first 46 games of the Mets 2019 season, meaning Cespedes has played in only 32% of Mets games since the 2016 season.
Cespedes continues to recover from surgical procedures to remove calcifications from both heels. Until fracturing his ankle, Cespedes was expected to return later in the 2019 season. He will now likely miss the remainder of the season and possibly part of the 2020 season as well.
The Mets have rational reasons to try to void Cespedes’s contract
If voiding a MLB player contract were easy, the Mets would have an obvious motivation to terminate Cespedes’s deal: he is paid far more than he is worth.
Cespedes is easily the highest-paid player on the Mets. His 2019 salary is $29 million, while second baseman Robinson Cano’s $19 million salary ranks a distant second; Cespedes’s $29.5 million salary in 2020 also projects to be far and away the team’s highest.
Cespedes’s salary, in fact, comprises a staggering 18% of the Mets’ entire player payroll. Although the team’s payroll of approximately $160 million is nowhere near MLB’s 2019 competitive balance tax, or luxury tax, threshold of $206 million, the Mets still have the ninth highest payroll among the 30 MLB clubs and a middling 21-25 record to show for it.
Fortunately for Mets owner Fred Wilpon, the Mets aren’t obligated to pay the entire tab for Cespedes. According to The New York Post’s Greg Joyce and Ken Davidoff, the team purchased an insurance policy on Cespedes’s contract. The policy requires that the insurer pay a portion of Cespedes’s salary in the event of a qualified absence from play. Cespedes’s inability to play due to heel injuries are qualified. It’s unclear if this policy also covers injuries caused by a non-baseball incident. Either way, the Mets will be on the hook for at least some of Cespedes’ remaining salary in 2019 and 2020—unless, of course, the team can: (1) void the remainder of Cespedes’s contract; (2) suspend Cespedes without pay; or (3) successfully negotiate a buyout with Cespedes and his representatives.
Cespedes will also turn 34 years old in October. While there is no predetermined range for any player’s prime, research suggests that Cespedes is probably past his prime. In 2015, Alex Speier of The Boston Globe found that batters’ peak years are usually between ages 26 and 28, with a prime typically between ages 25 and 30. When he played in 2017 and 2018, Cespedes hit very well—he amassed an OPS of .892 in 2017 and .821 in 2018, both right in line with his career OPS of .826. However, if Cespedes’s career follows a normal trajectory, his offensive production will likely slip in 2020 (assuming he is healthy to play). Cespedes’s age and injury history are also areas of concern for a National League club like the Mets given that Cespedes will need to play in the field and can only bat as a designated hitter in interleague games held in American League ballparks.
The Mets likely will try to independently verify or refute Cespedes’s account of events
It’s not certain that the Mets believe Cespedes’s explanation for the ankle injury.
Van Wagenen’s public remarks about Cespedes’s account noticeably emphasize that Cespedes is the only source of information. To that end, Van Wagenen has carefully couched his comments with such caveats as “what the player communicated to us”, “that’s the story from his standpoint” and “the information” shared by Van Wagenen only reflects what the team “has at this point in time.” As explained below, Cespedes possesses a financial incentive to describe the circumstances of his injury as related to a mere accident rather than as reflecting carelessness or recklessness or as related to playing a different sport.
In assessing the plausibility of Cespedes’s explanation, Mets officials might question him on why he was unaware of this particular hole on his property and what he was doing before he fell in it. Cespedes purchased La Potencia Ranch in 2013. The property is enormous—it’s spread out over 88 acres. Cespedes may have been in an area which he hadn’t before traversed or perhaps the hole was obscured by a rock or other object. Still, Mets officials might surmise that Cespedes should probably be well versed as to his property’s features now six years after purchasing the property and living on it.
Van Wagenen is uniquely positioned to question Cespedes. Prior to becoming the Mets general manager in 2018, Van Wagenen was one of Cespedes’s agents. Van Wagenen likely has a good sense of Cespedes’s tendencies in answering questions. Van Wagenen, moreover, probably has insights into instances where Cespedes is generally forthcoming and truthful and instances where he is less direct.
Further, Mets medical staff might ask to review hospital records related to Cespedes’s ankle injury and gauge if it is consistent with Cespedes’s explanation. The team may have doubts, particularly given what they already know about Cespedes. His quad problems are suspected by some as stemming from his golf play. Cespedes also hobbies in horseback riding and reportedly owns and trains several horses. His ranch, for that matter, contains a horse pen. When asked by media if Cespedes’s injury was horse-related, Van Wagenen relayed that Cespedes denies it was in any way connected to a horse.
If the Mets develop doubts about Cespedes’s narrative, the team could retain outside assistance in the form of a private investigator. The organization would be well within its rights to examine the explanation of an employee, particularly the club’s highest paid employee.
The legal difficulties of voiding a guaranteed MLB player contract . . .
While the Mets have good reason to try to exist their employment contract with Cespedes, the guaranteed qualities of MLB player contracts pose a sizable hurdle.
Cespedes’s employment contract is not public, but MLB’s Uniform Player Contract (“UPC”) is public. The UPC is included as an attachment to the collective bargaining agreement signed by MLB and the MLBPA. Player contracts must meet the requirements of the UPC and, in most regards, cannot adopt different language from what is found in the UPC. The CBA also empowers players, through the MLBPA, to file contact grievances against teams. These grievances are heard by a neutral arbitrator.
Over the years, the MLBPA has successfully repelled attempts by teams to void players’ contracts. The guarantees of player contracts were most glaringly seen in the unsuccessful attempt by the San Diego Padres to void the contract of pitcher LaMarr Hoyt in 1987. Even though Hoyt was incarcerated for a drug possession offense and even though the UPC contains language requiring that players exhibit good citizenship, neutral arbitrator George Nicolau deemed contract forfeiture to be an excessive punishment. Hoyt’s contract remained in effect.
The Mets are also familiar with the difficulties of voiding player contracts when players are implicated in legal trouble. In 2010, the team could have attempted to void the contract of righthanded closer Francisco Rodriguez, better known as K-Rod. Rodriguez was charged with assault and tore ligaments in his right thumb during an altercation with his girlfriend’s father. The Mets instead suspended Rodriguez indefinitely for violating the UPC. The team also reportedly converted some of his contractual guarantees into non-guaranteed compensation. Rodriguez would not pitch again until the following season.
To the extent teams are able to sever ties with players on guaranteed deals, one effective vehicle is a contract buyout. Through it, the team pays the player some of his remaining contract to go away. In 2005, the Baltimore Orioles and Sidney Ponson—who had been arrested for drunk driving—negotiated a buyout whereby the Orioles committed to pay much of Ponson’s $11.2 million contract. Also that year, the Colorado Rockies agreed to a buyout with pitcher Denny Neagle following Neagle’s criminal charge for soliciting a prostitute. The Rockies reportedly paid more than 80% of an $19.5 million contract.
Teams sometimes also simply trade away players who encounter off-field problems. In 2015, the Los Angeles Angels dealt outfielder Josh Hamilton—who had admitted to relapsing and abusing drugs and alcohol—to the Texas Rangers after it became clear the team would be unable to void Hamilton’s contract.
. . . But the Mets still hold some cards
The UPC contains language which at least superficially suggests the Mets could attempt to sever ties with Cespedes and extinguish the obligation to pay him going forward.
For instance, Paragraph 3(a) instructs that a player agrees to “keep himself in first-class physical condition and to obey the Club’s training rules, and pledges himself to the American public and to the Club to conform to high standards of personal conduct, fair play and good sportsmanship.” If it’s true that Cespedes’s injury was caused by him accidentally stepping into a hole, the Mets would probably not be able to invoke the language. Alternatively, if the Mets conclude that Cespedes’s injury stems from reckless conduct, the team could try to invoke it.
Paragraph 5(b) is also potentially relevant. It instructs that players are forbidden from participating in other sports without the express permission of the club. The listed sports include pro boxing, pro wrestling, skiing, auto racing, motorcycle racing, sky diving, football, soccer, “professional league” basketball and ice hockey. Although horseback riding is not explicitly mentioned, the clause includes catchall language by prohibiting the player from involvement in any “other sport involving a substantial risk of personal injury.”
Teams have invoked Paragraph 5(b) before. In March of 2002, the San Francisco Giants investigated the suspicious circumstances behind second baseman Jeff Kent’s broken left wrist. Motorists had called 911 to report witnessing a male motorcyclist crashing his motorcycle while attempting to perform a wheelie. The crash occurred near Scottsdale Stadium, where the Giants played spring training games. Kent initially denied the insinuation that he was the motorcyclist and insisted that he had injured his wrist while washing his truck. Evidence eventually showed that Kent was, in fact, the motorcyclist in question. Although Giants general manager Brian Sabean explored potential contractual ramifications for Kent, the team did not void Kent’s deal.
New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone was not so fortunate back in 2004, when he was the Pinstripes’ starting third baseman. While playing a pick-up basketball game in the offseason, Boone tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Boone admitted the circumstances of the injury to Yankees management. The team, in turn, voided Boone’s $5.75 million contract.
In theory, Boone could have grieved the termination on grounds that Paragraph 5(b) refers to professional basketball games, not pick-up basketball games. Such an attempt likely would have failed, however, since Paragraph 5(b)’s catchall provision extends to any sport where there is a substantial risk of personal injury. Knee and other injuries occur with some frequency during pick-up basketball games, particularly those where the participants are highly competitive.
The UPC contains a procedure for a club to void a deal. It is found in Paragraph 7(b). Under it, a club may terminate a contract if a player fails, refuses or neglects to conform his personal conduct to the standards of good citizenship and good sportsmanship or to keep himself in first-class physical condition or to obey the Club’s training rules.” Additionally, termination is possible if “in the opinion of the Club’s management” the player fails “to exhibit sufficient skill or competitive ability to qualify or continue as a member of the Club’s team” or “fails, refuses, or neglects to render his services hereunder or in any other manner.”
Potential role of a conversion to non-guaranteed contract rider
Player contracts, particularly those that are long-term and lucrative, also sometimes include addendums or riders in the form of “conversion to non-guaranteed contract" provisions. Sometimes teams use these provisions as a matter of course in their contracts. These provisions are permitted under the UPC and dictate circumstances where a player’s guaranteed salary can be converted into non-guaranteed salary.
Usually these provisions concern the player engaging in various types of behaviors, including sports not explicitly mentioned in Paragraph 5(b) of the UPC. It has been reported that the Mets used such a provision to convert some of Rodriguez’s guaranteed salary into non-guaranteed salary and that the team uses these provisions as a matter of course. It’s unknown if Cespedes’s contract contains such a provision, but if he injured himself while on a horse, chances are that either 5(b) from UPC or a contract rider would empower the team to discipline him.
It may be some time before the Mets decide whether to take any action against Cespedes. As explained above, the team first needs to conduct its own fact-finding and present Cespedes with probative questions that would attempt to clarify the circumstances of his injury. If the team concludes that Cespedes partook in behavior that violated his contract, it could suspend him without pay or—less likely—attempt to void the contract. If Cespedes disputes the team’s conclusions, expect him and the MLPBA to file a grievance.
The fact that Van Wagenen is Cespedes’s former agent is a wild card factor worth watching. As explained above, Van Wagenen is uniquely positioned to assess Cespedes’s credibility. On the other hand, it might be awkward for Van Wagenen to attempt to void the contract of a player he once represented (particularly if Van Wagenen still receives a commission from the former client’s contract).
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.