Nothing is more frustrating as a sports fan than to see your team break through to the postseason and possible championship contention, then see the front office fail to capitalize on that success by neglecting to make key moves or additions that can make the club even better.
New York Mets fans were feeling particularly grouchy this offseason as general manager Sandy Alderson and ownership showed little interest in bringing back outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. After a World Series run, wasn’t this team serious about winning again? How could a team playing in the country’s largest market pass on signing its best hitter? Weren’t the days of lower-tier finishes and slicing payroll because of Fred Wilpon’s financial troubles over? Mets fans had been patient and needed their faith affirmed.
Affirmation came late Friday night when Cespedes and the Mets reached agreement on a three-year, $75 million contract. The Mets were acting like a championship contender. Losing Cespedes would have been especially tough to accept had he signed with the division rival Washington Nationals. Though the Mets had passed the Nats in the NL East, what if Cespedes was a piece that helped even out that race, giving that lineup the right-handed thunder it had been lacking?
To be fair, the Mets did make several changes to the roster intended to improve depth, run production and financial flexibility, keeping the team competitive among fellow National League pennant contenders. Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera provided both an offensive and defensive upgrade to the middle infield. Addison Reed and Jerry Blevins were brought back, while Antonio Bastardo was added to make the relief corps stronger behind closer Jeurys Familia.
But what about that outfield? How were the Mets going to replace Cespedes if they didn’t re-sign him ? The slugging star was the catalyst in a second-half surge (going 20-8 in August) that pushed the team past the Nationals for a division title and through a postseason run that ended in a World Series loss to the Kansas City Royals.
Left fielder Michael Conforto showed promise in his rookie season, batting .270 with an .841 OPS, 14 doubles and nine home runs. But with only 56 regular season plate appearances (and 34 in the postseason), could he be counted on as an everyday player?
Cespedes played center field while Conforto manned left during the postseason, but without him, the Mets were left with Juan Lagares. Lagares plays outstanding defense in center, credited with 56 Defensive Runs Saved during his three major league seasons. But an ineffective bat (.259/.289/.358 triple-slash average last season) compelled the Mets to find other alternatives. The plan for 2016 appeared to be platooning Lagares with Alejandro De Aza, who compiled a .755 OPS between the Orioles, Red Sox and Giants last year. But would that combination provide anything close to Cespedes’ run production?
Yes, the Mets would probably contend for another playoff spot and division title this season because of their starting pitching. No team boasts a better quartet of young arms than Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. Neither deGrom nor Harvey would likely be restricted to innings limits after throwing 190 frames. Syndergaard can probably progress to 175 to 190 innings himself. And when Matz needs his workload monitored, pitchers such as Rafael Montero, Logan Verrett and possibly Zack Wheeler can fill that spot in the rotation, as well as taking turns for anyone else who requires rest during the season.
But as vital as that pitching is, the Mets became a contender when they finally began to score runs. In the first half of last season, the team had a -2 run differential. It’s possible to win that way, but very difficult. Once Cespedes joined the lineup, however, the Mets’ offense became powerful. After the All-Star break, the Mets scored 373 runs. Only two clubs scored more, both in the American League. The next closest NL team, the Cubs, scored 19 fewer runs. The Mets also led the league with a .770 team OPS in the second half of the season.
Naturally, Cespedes didn’t ignite the offense all by himself. He was one of the team’s most productive hitters, batting .287 with a .942 OPS, 17 homers and 44 RBI. Despite playing just 57 games with 249 appearances in New York after being acquired from the Tigers, there was some sentiment that Cespedes should be a candidate for NL MVP. Clearly, he made a major impact and his team improved significantly. But Conforto, Daniel Murphy (.803 OPS), David Wright (.818), Curtis Granderson (.898) and Lucas Duda (.956) also increased their production for a group effort.
Other than Walker replacing Murphy, those other four hitters are all returning to Queens in 2016. But could that type of output be realistically expected from those players without the rising tide that floated the rest of the lineup?
Yes, the same question could be asked of Cespedes himself. He had the best season of his career, reaching high marks in OPS (.840), doubles (42), home runs (35), slugging percentage (.52) and RBI (105) while playing in 159 games, the most of his four major league seasons. Yet at 30 years old, is Cespedes already facing a natural decline? How would he perform when a free agent contract wasn’t at stake? Might the comfort of a long-term contract make him complacent?
Obviously, many MLB teams had those concerns about Cespedes. How could he go into late January unsigned? Though he was a good fit for several clubs, none of them wanted to meet Cespedes’ terms for a five-to-six-year contract worth more than $100 million. When Justin Upton signed a six-year, $132.5 million deal with the Tigers, that only heightened the questions about Cespedes. Did he want more than Upton? Was a Detroit team already familiar with Cespedes’ skills and impact willing to go higher for a player two years younger? When would Cespedes accept the reality that the market wouldn’t yield the contract he was seeking? The chances of a desperate team pushing a major payday his way were dwindling by the day.
Cespedes apparently accepted his circumstances late Friday night, when he re-signed with the Mets. No, it’s not the deal he wanted, but it was the best he could still get — especially if it meant playing for a team and in a market he grew to love last season. Of all the clubs Cespedes could have signed with, the Mets arguably gave him the best chance to win the World Series title he came so close to getting last year. And if he has a great season while the Mets win a championship, maybe that’s the best possible ending. Cespedes could opt out and get that big contract next winter. The Mets would have a flag that flies forever. And the fans will have their faith rewarded.
Sure, there are no guarantees. Perhaps Cespedes will show that he’s not suited for full-time center field duty and his offense suffers because of it. Maybe he doesn’t have another great year left in him, even with the prize of a bigger contract dangled in front of him. But the Mets had to do this. They’re undoubtedly a better team with him in their lineup. And both the front office and ownership had to show the fans that they’re trying to win, not just settling. What more can you ask from your team?