Well, now he’s signed. And his new contract was widely hailed as a coup for the Mets, who are committed for only three seasons and might be off the hook after just one season, as Cespedes can opt out of the deal next winter.
Well, my friend Richard Lally — who’s got one of the cannier baseball minds I know — isn’t at all sure about that:
Rob, what did you think of the deal? I think the contact is entirely in Cespedes’ favor. Many local writers are reacting as if it’s a foregone conclusion that the Mets will have to pay for just the one year, and that Cespedes will re-enter the much weaker market in 2017.
I think that’s the least likely scenario.
If Cespedes replicates what he did with the Mets last season, sure, he’ll either re-enter the market or the Mets just might grant him a two- or three-year extension at $25 mil per. That’s about the going rate for a 900+ OPS player.
But aren’t the odds heavily against Cespedes repeating last season? Isn’t it far more likely that he’ll revert to the .770 player he was in 2013 and 2014? If so, I assume he will play out the contract and then sign another at 32.
As you (Dear Readers) probably know, I’m drawn to the unorthodox and the iconoclastic. So I’m drawn to this argument. If only for the sake of argument.
First: Yes! The odds are heavily against Cespedes repeating last season! I can’t imagine that the Mets expect him to repeat last season. I imagine that only the wildest-eyed of Mets fans expect him to repeat least season. But the Mets don’t need Cespedes to repeat last season. Last season was worth something like FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS, and they’re paying him only $27.5 million this season.
Yes, it’s far more likely that he’ll hit something like his career norms than what he hit last year. But that’s OK! If he just hits his career norms, he’ll still be worth … right around $27.5 million. Maybe a little more, but probably a little less. But the Mets are paying for more than (expected) performance; they’re also paying for goodwill. Remember all those professional carpers who kept saying the owners didn’t care about winning? Let’s say Cespedes is worth … oh, let’s say $22.5 million instead of $27.5 million. Isn’t $5 million a fairly small price to pay to silence the carpers? Even for the Madoff-challenged Wilpons, $5 million is still peanuts. Chump change. Walking-around money.
So forget about the $27.5 million because there’s nothing extraordinary about it.
Granted, Cespedes’ opt-out is somewhat extraordinary, even these days. Is my friend Richard right? Is Cespedes most likely to spurn his option, instead playing out all three years on the deal?
Yeah. Probably. But it’s far from a sure thing. Richard’s absolutely right: it’s foolish to assume — as I’m afraid many of us have — that Cespedes is probably gone after 2016, relieving the Mets of that $47.5 million burden. I don’t agree that it’s unlikely. But it’s hardly foregone.
And the math remains largely the same. What makes this contract so palatable for the Mets is that a) they might get some relief after just one year, and b) even if they don’t, they’ll still be paying Cespedes roughly the market rate in the second and third years of the contract. After which the contract expires.
So let’s say there’s a 40 percent chance that it’s a one-year deal: win for Mets. That leaves a 60 percent chance that it’s a three-year deal: still a win for Mets, if you buy the notion that goodwill’s worth a few million, since we would reasonably expect Cespedes’ projected performance decline to be roughly balanced by salary inflation.
As I’ve written a few (dozen) times, the real danger isn’t giving a player too many dollars, since there seems no shortage of dollars. The real danger is giving a player so many dollars and so many years that you wind up playing him largely because you’re paying him, beyond the point at which his performance dictates a part-time role or an outright release.
But Cespedes is only 30, and he’ll still be good enough to play when he’s 32. Which makes the financial terms of the contract practically moot.