Just past noon Saturday, the Mets received an email they long had expected, with star slugger Yoenis Cespedes providing the written notification needed to officially opt out of his contract.
He now is a free agent, an outcome that had become a virtual certainty this season as he bashed his way closer to the long-term payday that eluded him a year ago.
All that remains is one procedural hurdle before the bidding for his services can truly begin. The Mets have until tomorrow to make Cespedes a one-year qualifying offer of $17.2 million. He will decline the offer, meaning that if he signs elsewhere, the Mets will receive a draft pick as compensation.
The Mets could retain Cespedes, who industry executives expect to secure a four-year deal worth about $25 million annually, with the willingness to include a fifth year potentially the deciding factor. But the Mets should have plenty of company to drive up the bidding, with rival executives pointing at the Giants as a prime spot.
The Nationals bid on Cespedes last offseason and could use a righthanded hitter, though it might require some rearranging in the outfield to bring him aboard. The same goes for the deep-pocketed Dodgers. All have extra incentive; they’re tasked with knocking off the Cubs, who possess a talented young core.
In the American League, the Astros and Blue Jays could be among those in the mix, according to executives, with the Rangers and Angels factoring in to a lesser extent.
A reunion with the Mets isn’t out of the question. Cespedes has enjoyed his tenure in New York, which began when the Mets swung a deal to acquire him from the Tigers just before the trade deadline in 2015. But while their chances aren’t as slim as they were last offseason, the Mets figure to face more competition for his services this time around. All it takes is one rival club to drive up the bidding, which could make the Mets even more squeamish about handing out a long-term contract to Cespedes, who just turned 31.
Still, Cespedes’ bat will stand out in a free-agent market that is not as deep as in past years. Just as it was during games, his timing proved impeccable. With free agency within his reach, Cespedes posted one of the best offensive seasons of his career, compiling a .280/.354/.530 slash line, 31 homers and 86 RBIs despite being hampered by a leg injury that forced him to play leftfield instead of centerfield.
With a market that failed to develop as expected, Cespedes signed a three-year, $75-million deal with the Mets late last offseason, though the contract included the opt-out he exercised Saturday. After making $27.5 million in 2016, Cespedes forfeited a guaranteed $47.5 million over the next two years, believing he will receive a more lucrative package in free agency.
Cespedes’ fate will shape the rest of the offseason for the Mets, who must find a way to replace his production if he bolts. And it might not be as easy as simply signing another slugging outfielder such as Jose Bautista, as the top hitters in a relatively thin market would be both older and costly.
The Mets have shown a willingness to go that route in the past, signing Michael Cuddyer before the 2015 season although it cost them a draft pick. Cuddyer hit .259 with 10 homers and 41 RBIs before retiring at season’s end. The risk did not pay off.
Dexter Fowler and Ian Desmond both play centerfield. Both could fit as alternatives if Cespedes leaves, but early indications are that both could be cost-prohibitive.
THE BACKUP PLAN
The best options for a replacement could come in the trade market, and the general managers’ meetings next week will give the Mets their first chance to begin gauging interest in intriguing young players such as Gavin Checchini, Brandon Nimmo, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman. Any of them could be included in a larger deal to bring back an impact player.
Even without Cespedes, outfielders Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, Juan Lagares and Michael Conforto are under team control, giving the Mets even more flexibility. They could stand pat in the outfield, which means leaning upon Conforto to have a bounce-back year.
Failing to keep Cespedes would turn up the heat on the Mets to get creative. Instead of replacing all of the slugger’s production by simply adding an outfielder, the Mets could improve other areas of the team to help close the gap.
That means a greater emphasis on bringing back second baseman Neil Walker and adding more depth to a bullpen that could be without closer Jeurys Familia, who faces a potential suspension under baseball’s domestic-violence policy.
Like Cespedes, Walker is set to receive a qualifying offer, meaning that the Mets would receive draft-pick compensation if he declines and signs a free-agent deal with another team. But sources indicate the Mets are seriously interested in keeping Walker, who hit .282 with 23 homers and 55 RBIs before back surgery prematurely ended his season. Bringing back the switch-hitting Walker would help ease some of the sting of losing Cespedes.
In the bullpen, righthander Fernando Salas and lefty specialist Jerry Blevins are entering free agency. Sources said the Mets are interested in retaining both for next season, but even if Salas and Blevins return, the Mets might need more help.
Familia’s arrest on domestic-violence charges opens the possibility that he could be suspended for a large part of the first half of the 2017 season. That potential absence has pushed the Mets into the market for a setup reliever to ease the burden on Addison Reed.
It’s a need that would only increase in importance if the Mets must move on without Cespedes.