David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The cap and jersey portion of Wednesday’s re-introduction of Yoenis Cespedes completed the fairy tale, the cheery bedtime story that involved the free-agent slugger’s improbable longing to return home to Citi Field.
The script sounded great. Everyone looked happy. And if you were willing to flush your skepticism for a few hours, anything seemed possible.
“It’s not always about the money,” Cespedes told us. Repeatedly.
Did Cespedes leave a few extra million on the table from other clubs? According to him, yes, including a five-year deal or two. But the Mets still paid Cespedes extremely well by giving him $27.5 million for this season — along with granting him the flexibility to make a ton more by opting out after the first of a three-year, $75-million contract.
So this did have plenty to do with money, and for the Mets, they’re going to need more of those fat stacks in the coming years to remain competitive, with much of that dough funneled to the young members of their starting rotation. The same creativity that lured Cespedes back to Flushing is going to be required to come up with the numbers to pre-emptively secure some combination of Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz.
We didn’t omit Matt Harvey by accident. The budding Bravo TV star — and Scott Boras client — is the first up for free agency, after the 2018 season, and we don’t envision him being deterred from that path.
Just as well. Sandy Alderson didn’t flat-out say it would be impossible to retain all five of his elite-caliber arms, who are on slightly different service clocks, but it’s not economically feasible if the Mets also plan to field a few players behind them. The Mets are at roughly $140 million for this season, and only Harvey is arbitration-eligible (he’s earning a paltry $4.325 million).
“Is it realistic? I think it could happen,” Alderson said. “It’s a lot of money and you might have to look at other aspects of your roster. But I think if the Cespedes signing says anything, it’s that there are no possibilities that will be dismissed out of hand strictly for financial reasons.”
That’s encouraging to hear, and as Alderson mentioned, paying Cespedes means more than any lip service a GM can deliver. Writing this check, however, also raises the bar for the Mets, who are now dealing with increased expectations both inside the lines and outside their previous financial margins. Not only are fans counting on them to repeat as NL champs, they now believe the Mets will spend what’s necessary to do so.
Backsliding is no longer an option. Alderson broached the possibility that maybe the Opening Day payroll could dip slightly between now and then — trading Alejandro De Aza’s $5.75 million? But we’d still have to assume that $140 million should soon be considered the floor rather than a ceiling moving forward, right?
“You mean is $140 the new $85?” Alderson said, smiling. “I don’t think we’re going to be as mindful of the 140 number as most of you in the media. But we don’t anticipate it going to back to those prior levels.”
Alderson explained that gradually increasing the payroll, and upping it to pre-2012 levels, had more to with “recycling” the roster than simply flinging the checkbook into Flushing Bay. That’s a bit of a stretch. But Alderson is rolling now, and the Wilpons appear willing to give the GM what he asks for — within reason. It will be interesting to see how far those boundaries can be stretched.
The Mets have moved into the top half of MLB payrolls, somewhere between 13 and 15 depending on the accounting, with NL powers like the Dodgers, Cubs, Giants, Nationals and Cardinals still above them. As we were reminded again last season, those rankings don’t determine which teams end up in the World Series. But for this group of Mets to sustain that type of success, it’s going to get more costly in the years ahead, and not everyone is going to be as cooperative as Cespedes.
When the question of the rotation’s looming paydays was posed to a Mets official, he didn’t seem too concerned, replying, “These things have a way of working themselves out.”
As long as there’s enough money to go around.