David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Not only did we wake up under a foot of snow Saturday morning, but apparently it’s a whole new world, the dawn of a different era at Citi Field.
The Mets’ unexpected dash to the World Series last year was one thing, but the defending National League champs apparently have every intention of going back — and for the first time in what feels like a very, very long time, it’s more than just words.
The Mets are putting their money where their mouth is.
Sure, they got Yoenis Cespedes for about half of what the free-agent slugger was shooting for when this offseason began. But in agreeing on a three-year, $75-million deal late Friday night, the Mets rocketed Cespedes into the annual-salary stratosphere.
The sweetener here was the opt-out after the first year of a contract that will pay Cespedes a whopping $27.5 million in 2016, the second-highest average annual salary on the books behind only Miguel Cabrera’s $31 million with the Tigers. Should Cespedes stay for all three seasons, the contract still averages out to $25 million, the highest AAV of any position player this winter, eclipsing Jayson Heyward and Justin Upton.
Players keep score with that kind of stuff, as do their agents, and the Mets made it possible for Cespedes to puff his chest over a short-term deal rather than spurn it for the Nationals’ standing five-year, $100-million offer.
The Mets caught a break in that Cespedes really wanted to return to Flushing, but let’s give credit where it’s due. From the start of this offseason, general manager Sandy Alderson held firm on a three-year cap for any Cespedes contract and the Mets never wavered, telling his reps at Roc Nation Sports to give them a call when he was ready to discuss terms in that ballpark.
Alderson probably never expected that phone call. And as recently as two weeks earlier — at Mike Piazza’s Hall of Fame news conference — he dismissed the increasing drumbeat for pursuing Cespedes. What Alderson might not have realized, however, was that the public outcry would reach deafening levels in the subsequent days, and maybe he was listening more closely than we anticipated.
Just this week, in talking to Mets officials, we got the sense that the team was prepared to head into Opening Day without Cespedes, preferring to save their money for a deadline deal after assessing their needs at midseason — just as they did in trading for Cespedes last July. The strategy worked so well last year, they reasoned, why not stay the course?
Instead, the Mets suddenly got bold. And rather than shrug at Cespedes jumping on board with the rival Nationals — only a month after Daniel Murphy signed there — the Mets chose to pony up the cash to seize a rare opportunity. If Cespedes was willing to take the unorthodox step of accepting fewer years and less guaranteed money, the Mets would figure out a way to make him fit.
That’s what a good front office does, with the necessary backing of ownership. There has been plenty of howling over the Mets’ business plan in recent years, and deservedly so, given their decidedly small-market approach to operating in the sport’s biggest, most expensive market. But this Cespedes deal seems to indicate that those dark days are over.
Factoring in his $27.5 million for this season, the Mets have spent roughly $68.75 million specifically for 2016 on seven players, which will bring this season’s payroll up to more than $140 million, a level not seen since 2011, when it stood at $142 million. While that’s no guarantee of success — the 2011 team finished 77-85, in fourth place and 25 games back — this is a much different scenario.
The strength of these Mets, the starting rotation, also happens to be their least expensive commodity — for now. And it should be even better than a year ago with the expected full seasons from Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz along with the anticipated recovery of Zack Wheeler from Tommy John surgery. That’s a unique advantage, given the astronomical cost of pitching these days, and the Mets finally made sure to back their prized young starters with the best lineup possible, just as they did for the second half last season.
But as resilient and resourceful as the Mets were in getting to the World Series, they displayed those same characteristics this winter. After absorbing the gut punch of Ben Zobrist dusting them for the Cubs — with an assist from the Yankees, of all teams — the Mets quickly traded for Neil Walker and signed Asdrubal Cabrera. They brought back Bartolo Colon, Jerry Blevins and — in a signing that went under the radar this past week — got lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo at their price, a two-year, $12-million deal.
While those moves are well-crafted, incremental upgrades, Cespedes obviously was the big splash, a game-changer who sells tickets and makes people feel good again about where the Mets are headed.
On Friday, they told you it’s back to the World Series.