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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets want Yoenis Cespedes but will be cautious

New York Mets batter Yoenis Cespedes of Cuba

New York Mets batter Yoenis Cespedes of Cuba fouls off a pitch Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (not pictured) in the first inning of play during the MLB baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California, USA, 12 May 2016. Photo Credit: EPA/ PAUL BUCK

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.

Sandy Alderson is a smart man, so the Mets’ GM knows how much the fan base wants Yoenis Cespedes back in Flushing for 2017 and beyond. He’s fully aware of the daily drumbeat, the public outcry for Yo’s return that gradually has been increasing in volume since the All-Star break. He’d have to live in a subway tunnel not to know that. Even then, word might filter down through the sidewalk grates.

In listening to Alderson shortly after his arrival Monday at the GM meetings, we got the sense that the Mets are going to be serious, legitimate players in trying to lure Cespedes back to Citi Field. From the jump, that’s a good sign. Alderson already has been in contact with Cespedes’ camp — a week before he opted out Saturday — and he described the conversation as “very preliminary” but “friendly” and “respectful.” OK, cool. Better than the alternative.

But here’s the thing that gives us pause. The Mets — namely Alderson and COO Jeff Wilpon — showed a willingness to be creative with Cespedes’ agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, last January, bringing back the slugger with $27.5 million for 2016 and an opt-out clause built into the three-year, $75-million deal. So with that kind of dialogue in their history, not to mention a few chummy golf outings, we figured there would be a more aggressive push for some early traction.

Instead, Alderson made it sound as if the Mets were the ones to take a step back and let the market for Cespedes reveal itself before starting any meaningful negotiations. Maybe that’s an opportunity lost, but Alderson wasn’t shy in expressing the club’s more cautious approach.

“I think there always reservations, in a relative sense, what the market is out there,” Alderson said. “There are some absolute questions, too. Like, wow, that’s a lot of money. It never got to the point where there was any sort of demand or proposal on their part.”

Not yet, anyway. That stuff comes later, and Alderson hopes to have a Cespedes resolution — one way or the other — by the conclusion of baseball’s winter meetings, which run from Dec. 4-8. That’s a month from now, and a much quicker pace than a year ago.

Neither side appears willing to stretch this out, and Cespedes shouldn’t have to worry about scraping up offers this time around. He has averaged 33 homers the past two seasons while batting .286 with a .909 OPS. From the Mets’ perspective, he is a proven commodity, a slugger who not only was unfazed by the New York spotlight but seemed to enjoy it. That has value beyond the numbers.

The worrisome part of this equation, however, comes up when Alderson tries to peer too far into the future. Cespedes just turned 31, and since the advent of more stringent testing for PEDs, players don’t tend to improve from that age. No GM wants to get too crazy with the lengths of contracts, but Alderson especially has worked in a smaller window with the Mets. Aside from David Wright’s $137.5-million megadeal, the longest contract Alderson has handed out is the four-year, $60-million pact for Curtis Granderson.

We’re sure Alderson had his concerns about giving that seven-year extension to Wright. If the Mets’ captain hadn’t been the homegrown face of the franchise, Alderson might have let him get to free agency. As it stands now, for everything Wright has meant to the Mets, he’s averaged 10 homers, 38 RBIs and 80 games a year since signing that deal before the 2013 season. He also has batted .280 with a .793 OPS during that span — well below his previous career marks (.301 average, .887 OPS). These trends are not unique to Wright, obviously, but it speaks to the larger questions that also apply to Cespedes.

“I think it’s just that performance fluctuates,” Alderson said. “And it’s not always a function of motivation. It can be a function of injury. There are lots of things that come into play.”

The Mets realize that losing Cespedes would be difficult to recover from. For now, they’re trying not to find out.

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