Yoenis Cespedes remains the apple of the Mets’ eye

Yoenis Cespedes could have gotten more money if he hadn't decided to return to the Mets.

Brad Penner/Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

 

So, what do you think the ovation will be like for Yoenis Cespedes at Citi Field on Opening Day?

He is not just any free agent agreeing to rejoin his old team. No, Cespedes became something else on Friday night. A symbol to fans. A reminder that not every player seeks every last dollar. A hero for however long he remains a Met — or at least until the first ball he boots in center field.

Not that Cespedes is headed to the poorhouse after his agreement on a three-year, $75 million contract with the Mets, the highest average annual salary for a position player this offseason, pending a physical. But fans will remember — he could have secured a higher guarantee from the Nationals and at least one other club, according to major-league sources.

The Nats offered Cespedes five years for more than $100 million with a two-year opt-out and heavy deferrals, sources said. It was roughly the same deal that I suggested the Mets offer Cespedes earlier this week, but it turns out that they did not need to go nearly that far. 

YOENIS CESPEDES RETURNS TO THE METS

No, the Mets had a trump card that proved stronger even than they had probably anticipated.

Cespedes wanted to stay.

The deal is an absolute triumph for general manager Sandy Alderson and Mets ownership, who never wavered from their three-year limit even after news of the Nationals’ superior offer emerged. 

The Mets ended up giving Cespedes and his agents, Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA and Kyle Thousand of Roc Nation Sports, plenty of other goodies — a $27.5 million salary if he exercises his right to opt out after one year, a full no-trade clause, no deferred money. But who imagined the Mets getting this kind of deal on Cespedes at the start of the offseason? 

No one.

The Mets never will spend enough for some of their fans, but this deal should mute some of the criticism that the team has received from me and others for its relative frugality since the Madoff scandal.

Other clubs also were wary of signing Cespedes long-term, believing he was too great a risk. Some feared that, at 30, he soon might decline. Others viewed him as more of a great athlete than a great baseball player, worried that he was too mercurial, feared that he might lose incentive.

Those are mostly baseball concerns, not financial. But the Mets essentially had lost the benefit of the doubt, even after reaching the World Series last season. And even on Cespedes, they’re getting a $25 million discount, right?

LATEST FROM MLB

No matter.

The Mets kept Cespedes from bolting, along with free-agent second baseman Daniel Murphy, to their chief division rival. And considering the strength of their rotation, would anyone be surprised if they reached the Series again?

Cespedes’ magic, of course, faded in late October; he can disappear for weeks, carry a team for weeks, sometimes in the same month. But think back to how the Mets acquired him last July, after proposed trades for Carlos Gomez and Jay Bruce fell through. Cespedes became, and will remain, something of a lucky charm. Ditto for the player who was supposed to be traded for Gomez, infielder Wilmer Flores.

Club officials insist they would have had no regrets if Cespedes had taken the Nationals’ offer. Strictly from a risk-reward ratio, they probably would have been correct to resist signing him for five years. But once it became public that the Mets were Cespedes’ preferred choice, the team had to get a deal done or face a fresh and even more intense wave of condemnation from its fans.

The Mets got the deal done, all right — got it done on their terms during an offseason in which virtually every other free agent has met or exceeded his expected value.

Cespedes fell short of his projections — MLBTradeRumors.com had him at six years, $140 million — but New York is where he wants to be, and New York is where his agents at CAA/Roc Nation can help transform him into an even bigger star.

The one-year opt-out should remove any concerns about Cespedes’ motivation; he will be a year older next offseason, but the free-agent class for outfielders will be considerably weaker. Another big season would make him one of the top position players on the open market, and if he still wanted to remain in New York, the Yankees could join the Mets as one of his options.

Cespedes, though, will face some disadvantages; the Mets will need him to play center, where he is not as strong a defender as he is in left. Maybe the Mets would have been fine in center with Juan Lagares and Alejandro de Aza, who also is more of a corner outfielder. But in truth, they needed more.

HOT STOVE LEAGUE

Without Cespedes, the Mets lacked a big run producer who would give them the best chance of maxing out with their fabulous young rotation. Now that he is back, they won’t need to part with prospects for such a player in July. And, because Cespedes was ineligible for a qualifying offer, they will not even need to part with a draft pick.

For the Nationals, Cespedes also would have been something of a square peg in a round hole, playing center for a team that had just acquired a center fielder, Ben Revere. Good luck to the Nats, though, trying to spin this one. They cannot simply dismiss Cespedes as a luxury item, a bonus. And they cannot simply dismiss their pursuit of him as a way of driving up the price for the Mets.

The Nats clearly were intrigued by the idea of pairing him with Bryce Harper and uniting him with manager Dusty Baker. He becomes a symbol for them, too, the latest in a series of free agents to refuse their money this winter.

Infielder Ben Zobrist and outfielder Jason Heyward took less to play for the Cubs, outfielder Justin Upton more to play for the Tigers. Yes, the Nats landed Murphy, but four times a bridesmaid? Is this team that homely?

Maybe the Nationals were just unlucky; free agents choose teams for all kinds of reasons, and for Zobrist and Heyward, the allure of becoming part of the Cubs’ first World Series championship team since 1908 surely was strong.

It’s also possible, though, that the Nats face something of a perception problem. At times last season, they were Team Toxic, most memorably in late September when closer Jonathan Papelbon choked Harper, the National League MVP.

Some of the strong personalities, including Papelbon, remain. But some of the problems also should diminish, and perhaps even amount to a one-year blip.

Baker, one of the game’s greater unifiers, is replacing Matt Williams as manager. The team also will have far fewer players in their walk years, likely translating into less individualism, fewer distractions.

Harper still might rankle some teammates if he fails to run out certain balls, but he will be the reigning MVP, for crying out loud. Those teammates should no longer be jealous that he got too much, too soon.

Cespedes would have helped; Cespedes would help any team. Nationals fans will boo him like crazy, accuse him of using their team for leverage, but Cespedes will blissfully ignore them and bask in his popularity at home.

He’s the new king of New York. The free agent who took less.

Play Now!