New York Mets

Were concerns about long-term deal for Yoenis Cespedes legitimate?

New York Mets' Yoenis Cespedes (52) leaves the field after being hurt on a play during the sixth inning of the team's baseball game against the Colorado Rockies on Saturday, July 15, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

For all his natural gifts, personality and enjoyment of the spotlight, the New York Mets decision-makers were fully aware of the caveat emptor aspect of trading for Yoenis Cespedes in 2015, signing him to a contract to stay with an opt-out after one year in 2016, then signing him to a guaranteed long-term contract in 2017. Those concerns were mostly allayed by Cespedes’ 2016 season that included 31 home runs, an .884 OPS, an eighth-place finish in the Most Valuable Player voting and winning a Silver Slugger while playing 132 games.

Following that performance, there was no pretense nor likelihood of Cespedes leaving as a free agent as there was after 2015. Soon after the 2016 season ended, the Mets and Cespedes agreed to a four-year, $110 million contract, thus ending the speculation that the Mets’ reticence was solely financial and that they wanted Cespedes to leave.

The 2017 season began with Cespedes saying he wanted to win the MVP. He arrived in camp in tremendous physical shape, had a searing start with a .992 OPS and six home runs in April before his hamstring began acting up. First, it was day to day, then it sent him to the disabled list for more than a month. After a hot start upon his return in June, he’s been terrible. In July, he posted an embarrassing slash of .256/.281/.384 with one home run — numbers more suitable to a decent-hitting pitcher than a superstar outfielder. He’s shown more pop in August, but he’s still not back to normal.

Is this a validation of the fears harbored by factions of the Mets front office going back to before they traded for him or is it just an injury fueled slump? Tangibly, 2017 is largely unsalvageable for him and the Mets. His .814 OPS, 12 homers and 31 RBIs can be made “back of the baseball card” respectable with a decent August and September and reaching 20 homers and 70 RBIs, but that’s not what the Mets expected when they re-signed him. That’s not what Cespedes expects from himself. The numbers are not as awful as they appear when taking into consideration that he has played only 66 games due to those injuries.

A common fear for players who are unusual personalities is that once they’re paid, they will find reasons to sit out and rest. This is not legitimate with Cespedes in part because there’s video documentation of how hard he worked in the offseason. Regardless of the questionable nature of the program itself, he didn’t sit around doing nothing once he was paid. Plus, the injuries are not the type where it can be asked, “Is he really hurt?” He was really hurt and the injury might still be a lingering factor in his lack of power.

If anything, the issues with Cespedes stem not from his play, but from his preparation to play. Cespedes’ training regimen was one that was more suited to pack muscle mass on an NFL linebacker than to prepare an already muscularly dense baseball player to play 162 games. His leg problems are not new, but they have led to multiple stints on the disabled list since he joined the Mets. In an acknowledgement of the possibility that the overemphasis on weightlifting might have been a contributing factor, Cespedes plans to return to his previous regimen with stretching and flexibility taking precedence.

This is a positive sign. Regarding other concerns that the money has left Cespedes indifferent and the Mets were right to be worried about it, it just does not fit with the evidence. There would be a justifiable reason for regret if Cespedes were malingering, had become a clubhouse problem, was fighting with the media and expressed pure unhappiness with his situation once he got his $110 million.

He has done none of that.

There was a brief uproar when during a series between the Mets and the Oakland Athletics, he said that he’d like to finish his career where it started: in Oakland. He also said A’s manager Bob Melvin was the best manager he’d ever played for. He backed away from that almost immediately. Undoubtedly, Cespedes did not mean this in the way it was portrayed for tabloid effect, but it compounded his unproductive 2017 season and fans were understandably angry.

Again, this is not the basis to lament having signed him.

Stepping back from the bottom-line numbers, his injuries and the Mets’ disappointing season, and this is a situation in which sabermetrics and common sense statistical assessment are beneficial.

New York Mets left fielder Yoenis Cespedes (52) at bat during the Major League Baseball game between the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies on April 18, 2017, at Citi Field in Flushing, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

For a player of Cespedes’ stature to have 12 home runs and 31 RBIs, even if those numbers have been accrued in only 66 games, this is a bad season. But the injuries are a reason. Not feeling like playing now that he’s paid is an implausible theory.

As for his RBI total, there’s blatant cherry-picking to “prove” an argument. Suddenly, the same stat — RBI — that has been decried as meaningless by growing factions of stat-centric fans and more and more old-school fans is referenced to prove how poor a year he’s having. He has played in 66 games. With that pace, over 162 games, his total would be somewhere around 90. He’s not hitting in the clutch in 2017 as he did in 2016.

True or not, accurately contextualized or not, this also is cited frequently as a stat based on luck. Except for the homers, his batting ratios are relatively consistent with what he produced over the majority of his career, and the lack of power could be linked to his leg injuries.

None of this is linked with Cespedes as a person, but it cannot be denied that he is a mercurial figure. That he doesn’t always run as hard as possible on groundballs, has never been one to dive in the outfield or run into walls, sometimes avoids the media and looks uninterested and bored for stretches is not as tolerable when he’s not posting MVP-caliber numbers at the plate as it was when there was a chance he was leaving as a free agent and the fans and media entreated the Mets to do whatever necessary to keep him.

As he’s having a poor statistical season, the easy proclamation is that this is what worried general manager Sandy Alderson. The positives and negatives with Cespedes were what gave the Mets pause before acquiring him in the first place. It was only their desperation to do something to boost the offense and placate an increasingly agitated fan base after the trade for Carlos Gomez — luckily — came apart that led to Alderson putting aside preconceived notions and trading a top-tier pitching prospect in Michael Fulmer to Detroit to get Cespedes.

When combining his hot and cold personality with the statistical flaws that Alderson saw in his game, it’s understandable that there was a notable reluctance on the part of the GM to commit to Cespedes over the long term.

The complaints about him are somewhat hypocritical:

  • He doesn’t always hustle, but he never always hustled.
  • He’s had injuries, but he’s always had injuries.
  • He doesn’t walk — he’s never been a patient hitter at the plate.

These did not suddenly manifest themselves once he got paid. He just happened to have a great year in clutch situations in 2016 and stayed predominately healthy. It has been the opposite in 2017. It’s not a decline and it’s not a player who’s got his money and refuses to care anymore.

Most important, Cespedes is not a “bad” guy in that he can tear a club apart from the inside. He never has been. The Mets are not having the same buyers’ remorse that frustrated fans are because the organization knew what they were getting and his issues are not fundamental, they’re fleeting. Once he’s healthy, he will revert to what he was in his first year and a half with the Mets; not the guy who is eliciting questions as a player and a person.

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