PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Yoenis Cespedes has appeared only in simulated games for the Mets in spring training, as he did again Monday while facing Marcus Stroman on the stadium field at Clover Park.
But the possibility of his return as a legitimate power bat is getting more real by the minute — or as quickly as the team’s decision-makers will allow it.
Based on where Cespedes is along his rehab timeline, with only 16 days left before Opening Day, it seems unlikely that he’ll be ready to contribute March 26 at Citi Field.
We’ll concede this much, though. From our vantage point, often behind the backstop of these simulations, Cespedes doesn’t look too far away from being his damage-inflicting self again at the plate. It’s just a matter of how soon the Mets can feel comfortable about him pushing his surgically repaired ankles, including the multiple fractures to the right one, thanks to that wild boar attack on his Florida ranch.
Everything is steadily moving in that direction. Just this past week, Cespedes was upgraded to running full speed to first base — a significant milestone — and the Mets hope he’ll be making turns to the other bases in the very near future.
The next step is having him DH with full mobility on the basepaths in a simulated game, then eventually playing leftfield.
A quick glance at the calendar suggests that he can’t make up that much ground in the Grapefruit League by the end of this month. Still, the Mets refuse to rule out anything at this stage.
Part of that is the delicate nature of Cespedes’ reworked contract situation in his walk year, but also because it would be crazy to underestimate his remarkable athletic ability — when healthy.
“We have not stated Opening Day or not Opening Day,” general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said Monday morning. “We felt really good about where he was running to first base this [past] week and we’ll try to build off that.”
Van Wagenen, in his former life as an agent, negotiated Cespedes’ current four-year, $110 million contract. At the time, the $27.5M average annual value was a record for an outfielder and matched Alex Rodriguez for the second-highest ever for a position player.
This winter, wearing his GM hat, Van Wagenen and chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon first seized back $6 million from last year’s $29-million salary, then took a machete to Cespedes’ 2020 paycheck, hacking down the final season to a base of $6 million as a penalty for unapproved ranch-related conduct during his rehab.
Now Cespedes has to claw back whatever he can from the $17.5 million tied to incentives, starting with the $5 million that comes with joining the Mets for the regular season. That sum is prorated, based on when Cespedes is activated, and he has another $9 million linked to accumulating plate appearances and an additional $3.5 million in award bonuses.
Given that it already was March 9, I wanted to ask Cespedes how the rehab was coming along, but he said he didn’t have time Monday.
“Tomorrow,” he replied.
So while we wait for his update, here are a few observations from his recent simulated games.
We saw Cespedes hang a couple of tough at-bats on Jacob deGrom last Friday, once pushing him to seven pitches before flying out to deep rightfield on a 3-and-2 slider. On Monday, Stroman was nasty, and Cespedes managed only three ground balls before a loud lineout.
“He looks great,” Stroman said. “He looks like he’s getting healthy, he looks like he’s on the progression that he needs to be on. Obviously, he’s a huge weapon. He’s grinding extremely hard every single day in the weight room, in the training room, doing everything that needs to be done. I love seeing that and I’m hoping that he does everything he can so he can be out there with us helping us Opening Day.”
Cespedes obviously was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he wound up in what turned out to be a very expensive altercation with that wild boar. But he seems to be right where he needs to be lately, and that could be Flushing much sooner than I expected.
Cespedes has been a full participant in outfield drills as he prepares to play left in game-speed action. And if he’s not fit for that yet, he’s got to be close.
“We’ve been very pleased with where he is offensively,” Van Wagenen said. “He’s been working hard on his running progression and we’re going to continue to build that up . . . We’ve been taking it very carefully every day and we haven’t been stopped at this point, so we’ll continue to look forward to each day as a new step.”
Baby steps, maybe. But with a bigger payoff at stake, Cespedes is looming larger on the horizon, and he’s no longer a mirage.