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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

There's more to Yoenis Cespedes' move than just an opt-out

Mets' Yoenis Cespedes watches from the dugout against

Mets' Yoenis Cespedes watches from the dugout against the Atlanta Braves at Citi Field on July 25, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Maybe it’s overly cynical to think that Yoenis Cespedes didn’t really opt out of this season for what general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said were “COVID-related reasons.”

But in just about every one of those cases so far, from Ryan Zimmerman to David Price to Buster Posey, their decisions were soon followed by a public explanation, along with an accompanying statement of support by the team.

After the Mets’ 4-0 loss to the Braves, however, only Van Wagenen and manager Luis Rojas delivered the news, with nary a word issued from Cespedes' camp. The last the Mets heard from him was his agent’s phone call to Van Wagenen, at some point later in Sunday’s game, telling the GM that Cespedes was calling it a season — and in doing so, ending his Mets career.

That’s his prerogative. There’s a reason the option is in place for players this season. But I’m not buying that Van Wagenen and Rojas were blindsided by it, either. Not with all the pre-existing drama between the Mets and Cespedes, a relationship that was permanently wrecked when they blasted this year’s contract to smithereens.

Get on Van Wagenen all you want for the cryptic statement issued before Sunday’s game that declared Cespedes AWOL, immediately sparking fears about the player's  well-being even though the club, behind the scenes, apparently knew he was fine. But the idea of Cespedes abruptly bailing on this truncated season was something that the Mets certainly considered a possibility.

For everything that Cespedes did to come back from surgeries on both heels, as well as the broken ankle from his wild-boar encounter, there was no more money left to chase. Well, none by his usual standards. The Mets chopped his $29.5 million salary for this season down to $6 million — because of his ranch shenanigans — and it was whittled down to $2.22 million by the time this 60-game season got underway.

Cespedes did have some prorated incentives to pursue, but those were based on at-bats, and he had reason to suspect those could be drying up before too long. Rojas planned to put him on the bench Sunday — Cespedes was 2-for-15 with nine Ks in his last four games —and the Mets, now 3-7, wouldn’t wait to get Dom Smith and J.D. Davis more into the mix.

Van Wagenen didn’t come out and say that Sunday. But the GM also made sure to bring up discussions that both he and Rojas had earlier in the week with Cespedes, who apparently was growing concerned about playing time.

“I had conversations with him over the last couple of days to reassure him that our job was to try to put the best team on the field every day,” Van Wagenen said. “And that Luis had the power and the authority to try to do that with the lineup. [Cespedes] was certainly being given every opportunity to help us perform, and I’ve said publicly — and to him directly — that when Yoenis Cespedes is at his best, he can help us.”

The Mets just wouldn’t wait around for that to happen, and neither could Cespedes, evidently. By Sunday morning, he probably figured there was no point in risking injury — and threatening his next contract — if he was going to be making relative peanuts on the bench.

But that’s conjecture on my part. The fact is that Cespedes had an exit strategy available to him this season and he took it. The Mets had to be furious with him Sunday, however. Failing to show up for a game is extremely rare in baseball, mostly limited to tragic events. Anything short of that is looked upon as practically treasonous by the clubhouse, and the normally unflappable Rojas appeared shaken up in talking about Cespedes suddenly leaving the team.

Cespedes had a history with the Mets’ hierarchy. He no doubt despised the Wilpons for clawing back his 2020 contract and Van Wagenen — his former agent — was part of that betrayal. But Rojas, as the rookie manager, deserved better than to be left hanging by Cespedes’ unexplained absence.

Rojas mentioned repeatedly trying to text Cespedes on Sunday, and after another painful loss, still felt obligated to defend Cespedes' indefensible actions. He shouldn’t have.

“These are very tough times,” Rojas said. “And Cespedes’ personality, which we all know here, he’s a guy that’s very quiet and very to himself. And we respect him making this decision, even if it’s just that way.”

“That way.” Cespedes showed Rojas zero respect by not showing up Sunday, so he didn’t deserve any from the manager. Not even a text back?

The Mets could say they were surprised by Cespedes bowing out, but in reality, was it really that shocking? He leaves with about $600,000 in his pocket for these nine games, and a Mets legacy that should have been so much more.

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