PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Yoenis Cespedes rolled through the Tradition Field gates early Sunday morning in a vehicle that barely fit into his parking space. Calling it a pickup truck would be like referring to an aircraft carrier as a boat. Like Cespedes himself, the four-wheeled machine was flashy, powerful and expensive.
But now that Cespedes has arrived at spring training — three days early, for those keeping track — it’s still going to be a while before we find out exactly what the Mets bought with that three-year, $75-million contract. Or perhaps more accurately, the one-year, $27.5-million deal Cespedes can walk away from at the end of this season.
Can Cespedes return to being the two-month wrecking ball who batted .287 with 17 homers, 44 RBIs and a .942 OPS in 57 games after his trade to the Mets? Or will he be more like the guy with the career OPS below .800 who previously never hit more than 26 homers — back in 2013 — and slumped in the playoffs (.222, 17 strikeouts, 54 at-bats) last October?
The truth probably is somewhere in between, or at least that’s what the Mets likely would settle for. To think Cespedes can be a blue-and-orange Superman again for six or seven months (counting another playoff run) seems unrealistic. We won’t say impossible, however, and Terry Collins is keeping his fingers crossed.
“We don’t know,” he said. “This guy is a very good player. I think this is the first time where he knows he’s going to be in a place for a while. We’ll just have to wait and see. My years in Pittsburgh, they kept saying the same thing about Barry [Bonds]. That he can’t do it again next year. And then he just did better.”
We get Collins’ point, even if Bonds’ name is kind of radioactive these days. But there also is another factor here, and that’s how Cespedes deals with the extra scrutiny from Day 1 of spring training. He’s been under the microscope to varying degrees since the A’s signed him as the Next Big Thing out of Cuba in 2012. This, however, is a little different.
Cespedes is the highest-paid player on the defending National League champions and the one being relied on to shoulder the bulk of the heavy lifting in the middle of the lineup. The fact that it’s with the Mets, a team with a hyper-attentive fan base in the biggest media market, only turns up the heat. That pressure is a real, tangible element, and everything Cespedes does is going to be examined. That includes Grapefruit League games.
“It’s not something new I have to get used to,” Cespedes said. “I’m preparing for the season. I don’t put too much into what goes on in spring training.”
Maybe he doesn’t. But Cespedes quickly attracted an audience Sunday for his private BP session on Field 2 with hitting coach Kevin Long.
Cespedes often prefers to take his swings in the indoor cages — as we discovered by his pregame absences last season — but this time he chose to do some flexing outside, maybe to test the wind patterns at his new spring training home.
Cespedes cleared the fences by plenty, and Long said he notices an attitude change in his homer-hitting pupil when there’s people watching — just as Cespedes shifted into a higher gear for the playoff stretch a year ago, when the Mets needed an offensive savior to help nail down the NL East title.
“I’ve always said superstar players can do things that other players can’t do,” Long said. “And when they turn on that switch, they can carry you for a long time. The two months he had were incredible. He’s a dangerous guy and he’s a superstar, and that’s what he did.”
But Cespedes also is human, and Long suggested he might have been a little fatigued once the Mets got to October. The trick is to limit the streakiness Cespedes showed last season, or at least shorten the cool spells. The encouraging part is that Cespedes definitely seems comfortable with the Mets and looks just as strong as the last time we saw him on a baseball field.
Living up to the hype? That comes later.