On Friday night, the New York Mets re-signed Yoenis Cespedes to a three-year contract with an opt-out after the first year. It was a fitting end to quite possibly the biggest free agency saga of the winter. Cespedes’ white-hot bat was key in helping the Mets to their first playoff berth in nine years last season, and embattled Mets fans loved him for it. As the slugging outfielder remained unsigned through December and into January, those fans begged on social media for their penny-pinching ownership to re-sign him.
This past week, that clamoring reached a fever pitch, and bled over into places not usually inhabited by #MetsTwitter:
@ClaytonKersh22 mets need to sign Cespedes
— LA POTENCIA 52 (@NYMets3348) January 21, 2016
Many Mets fans truly believed that re-signing Cespedes was the only way to keep their team in contention, and it’s easy to see why. In the first half of 2015, when Cespedes was on the Detroit Tigers, the Mets as a team had a .660 OPS. That was worse than any other MLB club except for the rebuilding Phillies and the offense-starved Chicago White Sox (another team whose fans desperately wanted to land Cespedes). In the second half, which included Cespedes, the Mets’ .770 team OPS was good for fourth among major-league clubs.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t think re-signing Cespedes turned the 2016 Mets into a contender – because the team already was one.
Cespedes was a big key to that second-half offensive surge, no doubt. But it would be foolish to give him all the credit. Around the same time the Cuban outfielder was traded to New York, plenty of other things happened to the Mets that helped revive their bats:
- Top prospect Michael Conforto was called up from Double-A.
- Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson were traded to the Mets from the Braves
- Starting catcher Travis d’Arnaud and starting third baseman David Wright both returned from injuries
If the Mets’ 2016 lineup without Cespedes may not have been the powerhouse it was to close out 2015, but it wouldn’t have reached the depths it did to begin that season either. Conforto was (and probably still is) expected to play every day. Juan Lagares was expected to return to being one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball after an elbow injury limited him in 2015. Wright and d’Arnaud are both expected to open the season healthy as well.
For the Mets, it’s not like the offense has to be that good, either. Or do I need to remind you of the Mets’ incredible rotation of talented young aces and ageless wonder Bartolo Colon?
That’s not to say that Cespedes won’t improve both the lineup and the Mets’ chances of winning another pennant. It would be unreasonable, however, to think that he can maintain a .287/.337/.604 slash line with a .394 wOBA throughout an entire 162-game span. Those are the numbers Cespedes, a career .271/.319/.486 hitter, put up in the two months between his trade to the Mets and the end of the 2015 season. It’s worth noting, too, that much of that production came against weak teams such as the Phillies, Braves, Marlins, and Rockies.
For an idea of what he probably will produce in his first and perhaps only full season in New York, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have the slugger at .268/.311/.497, right around his overall career totals. That’s the mark of a good player, no doubt, but probably not the MVP-caliber one Mets fans are expecting.
Then there’s the matter of defense.
The Mets are have four starting-caliber outfielders – Cespedes, Conforto, Lagares, and Curtis Granderson – and three spots to put them in. Granderson is entrenched in right field, so that leaves three men competing for two starting jobs. The dynamic worked last season because Conforto was strictly a platoon player and often sat against lefty pitchers, and Lagares’s arm issues hindered his offensive ability. That allowed Cespedes to play every day, shifting between center and left field as needed.
Mets manager Terry Collins, however, has made it clear that he sees Conforto as an everyday player and plans to deploy him as such in 2016. As for Lagares, if he opens the season healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t turn back into the 2014 player that combined a league-average bat with near-elite level defense. If that’s the case, he should be starting.
That would leave Cespedes as the odd man out, which obviously won’t happen. The most likely scenario at this point is that Lagares – healthy or not – comes off the bench and the Mets go with their best offensive outfield of Conforto, Cespedes, and Granderson. That poses another problem, however: Cespedes isn’t just a defensive downgrade from Lagares, he’s a huge liability in center field. Going by UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating scaled on a 150 game basis), Cespedes was the second-worst defender at the position last season, sandwiched between Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco of the Giants. Neither of those players is slated to start at center next season after the Giants signed a much better fielder in Denard Span. That leaves Cespedes as probably the worst defensive center fielder in Major League Baseball if he does start there regularly.
I’m not totally sold on newfangled fielding stats, however. After all, Cespedes himself told Mets GM Sandy Alderson upon his arrival to New York that he’s a center fielder. So let’s use the good old-fashioned eye test to see if the Cuban’s self-confidence isn’t misplaced:
Yeah. That’s a problem.
The only way to solve that, though, is to start Lagares and bump Cespedes to his natural position in left field, which would then cut into Conforto’s development. If Conforto is really the future slugger the Mets think he is, they can’t allow that to happen.
Either way, signing Cespedes may be a boost to the Mets and their fans, but he may not be as valuable to them in 2016 as he was in 2015.