The list of desirable free agents has suddenly gotten quite short. Or rather, the list of highly desirable free agents. When Dae-ho "Big Boy" Lee is fifth or sixth on your list – with all due respect to the only man known to have homered in nine straight professional games — you know your list is getting short.
But atop your list, as you’ve probably been reading, is Yoenis Cespedes, who grabbed the top spot without disputation once Chris Davis and Justin Upton finally signed.
Elementary, Watson! It’s not that nobody wants Cespedes (despite what you might have heard on the radio or Internet). Cespedes hasn’t signed because his agent believes his client is worth more than he’s been offered. And that he’ll probably be offered more. Which he almost certainly will be, considering how many theoretically contending teams still need (or seem to need) a hard-hitting outfielder.
It’s generally thought that Cespedes has been offered contracts in the neighborhood of five years and $100 million, which is more than Alex Gordon got, but less than what Justin Upton got. And one might well imagine Cespedes and/or his agent feeling that Upton’s deal is more in line with both the market and Cespedes’ particular skills.
So what’s the problem?
Well, a couple of things.
One, Cespedes is two years older than Upton.
Two, I suspect that many clubs are a little skeptical about Cespedes’ 2015 numbers, which are largely weighted by his tremendous August and September (which were followed by a weak October). And as Joe Sheehan has pointed out, Cespedes did most of his late-season damage against weak pitching staffs; don’t think for a moment that today’s front offices don’t pay attention to such things.
Does this mean Cespedes isn’t a really good hitter? Of course not. But he’s merely decent in the outfield, has stolen only 21 bases in the last three seasons, and walks hardly at all. He’s a one-dimensional player and the one dimension – smacking the hell out of the ball with real frequency – is quite valuable. But it’s still just one dimension, and there’s not going to be a second in his 30s.
So what is Cespedes "worth"?
Some will argue – and I know this is true, because "some" tell me this every year – that a player is worth whatever he gets. Which is true in a sense, but reductive to a fault. One might also argue that he’s "worth" the average of every serious offer, and that the "winner" of the auction has actually overpaid. Except of course in today’s Major League Baseball, with teams making more money than they can (or want) to spend, all the usual economics begin to seem nonsensical. It’s as if teams are catering to some Platonic (or old-fashioned, or penurious) ideal rather than the reality in front of them, which is that many teams can afford anything or even everything. And yet there’s not a single team that’s willing to just buy all the best players, or even most of them.
So let’s go back to basic principles, and assume that a player’s "worth" is measured by his performance and the price of that performance on the market. In which case, Cespedes is worth about $25 million in 2016, and a little less in succeeding years (assuming his decline in performance is balanced by salary inflation, which might well be a faulty assumption). By this measure, Cespedes is likely to be somewhat underpaid in 2016. Later on, though? Well, they have ways and I think Sir Kenneth of Rosenthal has just about nailed this one:
Cespedes, 30, could claim victory – he would get the long-term security he wants and a higher average annual value ($24 million) than Justin Upton ($22.125M).
Ken’s advice is for the Mets but … why just the Mets? Everybody’s on the Mets for not spending more, but they did grab Neil Walker and they could do exactly what they did last summer: See how things are going, and then trade for a big bat in July.
More to the point, if this makes sense for the Mets – and I think it almost indisputably does – why not for another half-dozen teams with a big hole where a left (or right) fielder’s supposed to be?
The Cespedes-to-the-Mets talk is due almost entirely to those two months, still so recent in our memories. But within a year or two, they’ll just be two months, and it won’t seem sensible for those two months to have determined his status for five years.
The Mets do have the benefit of familiarity; they know more about Cespedes than all but two other teams, which is an advantage. So whatever happens, we may assume it was informed by the Mets’ "special knowledge" of this highly talented, if one-dimensional, young man who’s about to become exceptionally wealthy. No matter who’s signing the checks.