Had the market developed, had another team made an aggressive offer, had the offseason unfolded as most everyone thought it would, the Mets would have been ready to move on from Yoenis Cespedes.
Theirs had been a solid offseason, though it carried all the pizazz of C-SPAN on a Saturday night. Even Mets general manager Sandy Alderson — the man who had orchestrated the whole thing — had to admit that the moves had lacked “sizzle.”
But even without re-signing the Marlboro-puffing, home run- hitting second-half savior, the belief within the organization was that it had made enough shrewd upgrades to bolster the team’s depth and smooth out the lineup. And the Mets hoped those actions — along with a starting rotation stocked with Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and eventually Zack Wheeler — might be enough to make another run at the World Series.
The public perception, of course, was much different.
Then everything changed. Cespedes’ camp let it be known that it would discuss a three-year deal, and soon the Mets had their man at their price.
Each side made compromises. Cespedes signed for three years and $75 million, a less lucrative deal than had been expected. But some of that value was regained in the opt-out provision the Mets included after the first year, giving Cespedes another opening into free agency next winter.
Suddenly, what had been a merely adequate offseason for the Mets turned into perhaps the most productive of Alderson’s tenure, with the slugging Cespedes as the cherry on top.
“From our standpoint, we recognized that we have a pretty good team,” Alderson said. “But we also recognized that there was an opportunity for us to be a better team. So I think this does make a statement about the here and now.”
Better beyond the numbers
Without Cespedes, annual offseason projections at FanGraphs.com pegged the Mets in the thick of the playoff chase at 84 wins, a figure dampened by lackluster forecasts for rightfielder Curtis Granderson (despite his bounce-back year) and leftfielder Michael Conforto (despite his standing as the team’s best prospect), among others.
With Cespedes, that total has jumped to 86 wins, closer to the 90 the Mets reached last year.
The improvement on paper hardly matches the perception of Cespedes as the missing piece of a championship-level club. Still, the unexpected signing carried far-reaching implications for the franchise, including some that stretch well beyond the playing field.
In Cespedes, the Mets regained a transformational force in the lineup, a star player who demonstrated loyalty to the once-beleaguered organization and perhaps their most prominent symbol of a new era in Flushing. Payroll has shot to the $140-million range, a level unseen since 2011, before the full fallout of the Madoff financial scandal could be realized.
“They’ve said from Day 1 that for the right guy, the right situation, the right time, they would make those types of aggressive moves,” said David Wright, who signed an extension in 2013 partly because of assurance from team brass about creating a winner. “And they’ve done that.”
The alternative to Cespedes
Aware of the anticipated market for Cespedes, the Mets spent much of the winter speaking and acting as if they could go without the slugger.
They had traded for Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, choosing to move forward with him instead of offering a multiyear deal for a reunion with postseason hero Daniel Murphy.
After years of taking arrows for their shaky situation at shortstop, the Mets signed Asdrubal Cabrera. Then they found a platoon partner for centerfielder Juan Lagares (free agent Alejandro De Aza) and rounded out the bullpen (reuniting with Jerry Blevins and Bartolo Colon and giving Antonio Bastardo a two-year deal).
Perhaps this was to be the only surprise of the offseason for the budget-conscious Mets, who had shown no signs of boosting payroll past the bottom third of the league. With every dime that they spent on other players, the odds of a Cespedes reunion looked increasingly slim.
To top off their winter, the Mets pursued one more move. It would have fallen in line with the others, perfectly adequate and relatively boring.
The Mets needed a righthanded-hitting outfielder, and because they figured it wouldn’t be Cespedes, sources said they trained their focus on Steve Pearce or Ryan Raburn.
A testament to loyalty
Taken together, the Mets hoped the moves would be enough, that perhaps the ultimate result would trump the relative lack of sizzle. But as an added bonus, they re-signed Ces pedes, who lengthens the lineup while infusing a dash of star power.
“What he did on the field last year was incredible,” Wright said of Cespedes, who had 17 homers and 44 RBIs in 57 games after his trade from the Tigers. “It obviously speaks for itself.”
Like last summer, in some ways, the Mets will be fitting a square peg into a round hole with Cespedes. He’ll be forced to play a full season in centerfield, where advanced metrics peg him as a substandard fielder in a critical defensive position.
But as he showed last summer, Cespedes’ presence could be felt elsewhere. For Wright, what resonated about the slugger’s re-signing was what it said about the organization.
Last season, Wilmer Flores cried at the thought of being traded away and Wheeler personally called Alderson to express his desire to stay. Cespedes was just the latest to show loyalty.
“We have a big group of those types of people,” Wright said last week. “It seems to rub off on everybody else. In Yoenis’ case, just the positive experience he had here for those two months, I think he wanted to come back and finish the job. It’s admirable.”