The last time Yoenis Cespedes played in a major-league game — just about two years ago on July 20, 2018 — Brodie Van Wagenen was Jacob deGrom’s agent, advocating that the Mets sign their ace to a long-term contract or trade him. DeGrom was a pretty good pitcher who aspired to win a Cy Young. Double-A Binghamton manager Luis Rojas had recently sent his two young studs, Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil, to Triple-A.
So yeah, it has been a while. But Cespedes said Saturday that he will return for Opening Day on July 24.
“I know for certain now that I will be ready,” he said through an interpreter.
Of course, Cespedes, 34, felt that way in late February, too, before the coronavirus pandemic really escalated. He realizes now that he would not have played in the original opener, but the four-month delay has worked to his benefit.
In recent workouts at Citi Field, Cespedes has taken batting practice — and put on shows — with his teammates. He said he has been running “close to as normal as possible.” But he has played in leftfield sparingly and has not participated fully in baserunning drills with teammates.
Still, the Achilles tendon in at least one of his legs is tight when he wakes up every day, Cespedes said.
“But after I start walking around for about two or three minutes, it loosens up and I feel ready to go,” Cespedes said. “The hardest part (of this long rehab process) is getting to the point where my legs are right now, the way they feel. They can still feel better, but the way that they feel right now, I didn’t think I could get to this point.”
It was the heels/Achilles tendons that started his prolonged absence in 2018. He ended up having surgery on each of his heels, which cost him the rest of that season and the beginning of the next one. Then he broke his right ankle during an encounter with a wild boar on his ranch in May 2019, requiring a third surgery in 10 months.
Altogether, Cespedes has played in fewer than one-quarter of the Mets’ games since he signed a four-year, $110 million deal ahead of the 2017 season. His base salary for 2020 was cut to $6 million — about $2.22 million, prorated to the shortened season — and he is scheduled to be a free agent this offseason.
Over the winter, Cespedes posted to his social media accounts a workout hype video that included audio of people doubting him and his ability to return. But that mindset seems to have lessened.
“To be honest, I’m not out here to prove anything to anyone,” Cespedes said. “I’m out here to prove something to myself, that after three surgeries, I can come back and play the way that I know that I can.”
Where Cespedes plays most often this season remains a question. Slotting him in at DH would be easiest physically, and general manager Van Wagenen said recently that the Mets will have to monitor how Cespedes responds to his workload.
The other option is leftfield, where the Mets have J.D. Davis penciled in as the starter. They both played there during a pre-scrimmage workout Saturday afternoon at Citi Field.
“The way that my body is feeling right now, the way that I’ve been able to run, I feel so much better and I feel like I’ll be able to play the outfield if that comes up,” Cespedes said. “It’s not a decision that’s been brought to me yet, but the days that I play leftfield, I’ll play leftfield. And the days I have to be a DH, I’ll be a DH.”
The Mets still have the second half of camp to see how Cespedes progresses and where he fits best. His defensive position doesn’t matter as much as his place in the batting order, where he is set to join the middle of the lineup somewhere near Alonso, McNeil, Michael Conforto and Davis.
Cespedes like the sound of that.
“I don’t think it’s any secret we have one of the best lineups in baseball,” he said. “We have everything. We have speed, we have hitters who can hit for power, hitters who can hit for contact. If everything goes right, we’ll have a very good team.”
He isn’t asking for much more than simply being able to play.
“I just want to be healthy the entire season,” Cespedes said. “That would be a good season for me.”