Yoenis Cespedes is a beast. Physicists examine the explosion of ball off his bat for the Big Bang Theory. His home runs make fireworks look like pop caps. He runs so fast he makes Speedy Gonzalez look like regular Gonzalez. He is, the most interesting man in baseball.
Cespedes joined the New York Mets for the playoff run and not only did they reach the postseason, they were playing in the World Series. For a fan base in the largest market tired of fielding mediocre talent and losing, the surprise success was a shot in the arm – and not the steroid kind. Clearly resigning the outfielder is essential for a repeat performance in 2016, right?
There’s no denying the Cuban native has outrageous raw talent. He can hit for power – 35 home runs in 2015, run blazingly fast – stealing third base in 2.92 seconds, and unleash his cannon of a right arm to home – like how he nailed Starlin Castro trying to score from second on a single to left. But as we examined Cespedes’ strengths earlier this month, we also revealed a substantial lack of polish.
I’m not going to rehash that story, but I suggest skimming through it because it makes the rest of this argument stronger.
GM Sandy Alderson traded for the left fielder/center fielder just moments before the non-waiver trade deadline expired on July 31. Coming into town from Detroit with a .293/.323/.506 slash, Cespedes first donned a New York uniform for the Mets 3-2 win over Washington on Aug. 1. Fans excitedly clamored about how their new offensive weapon would compliment a dazzling pitching staff and punch a ticket to the playoffs.
And the then 29-year-old did enjoy offensive success with the Mets. In 57 regular season games, Cespedes slashed .287/.337/.604, adding 17 home runs and 44 RBI. He performed well in August, hitting 8 home runs and sporting an .872 OPS, but it was his ridiculous end to the regular season that grabbed headlines. He finished September and October with a 1.017 OPS and 20 extra base hits – including nine home runs. He had at least a base hit in the first eight games of the month and finished the first 13 games with nine homers and 21 total hits. It was ludicrous.
Meanwhile, the organization’s strength was their starting pitching and occasionally the bullpen. Just enough offense bolstered the pitchers to an 11-0 streak during a 15-8 April, the team’s second most successful month. Clinching the NL East division in Cincinnati on Sept. 26 remains a red-letter day, but that wasn’t when they played their best. New York finished August 20-8, relegating their 16-14 September/October to third on the list.
So Cespedes looked good (still a .275/.331/.542 slash) during the team’s best month and great in one of their passable months. Some of that gets lost in the off-season clamoring to hand him a massive contract to the tune of six years/$150 million. What may not have been completely forgotten is how he disappeared in the playoffs, but that’s better discussed in our other article.
There are some other key facts that tend to get lost in the haze of the post-World Series/pre-winter period – the New York Mets also made several other personnel moves before punching their postseason ticket.
Captain David Wright played just eight April games before a hamstring strain sent him to the disabled list. While sidelined, doctors diagnosed the 32-year-old with spinal stenosis – a permanent narrowing of the back that could prematurely end his career with five more years on his contract.
Weeks and months passed as fans clamored for Wright’s return and sports reporters were left with vague answers from team officials. Finally, on Aug. 24, he came back, hitting a home run in his first at-bat and helping the Mets knock off Philly with two hits and a walk. But as the summer turned into fall, it became clear the third baseman traded power for patience. He finished the regular season slashing .289/.379/.434 with only 5 home runs but a stronger BB:K ratio than his career average.
Veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer left western America in his rear-view mirror last winter after 14 seasons with the Minnesota Twins and Colorado Rockies, ready to be a leader and offensive threat for a resurgent New York club. Unfortunately, the now left fielder’s offensive numbers drastically declined, his defense recessed and he ended up injured. Team management was expected to replace the outfielder with a washed up or never-was veteran, but Alderson’s group made the gutsy decision to call up rookie sensation Michael Conforto.
Scouts raved about the 22-year-old’s polished collegiate bat and lampooned his shoddy defense, but Conforto surprised many in 2015. Not only did he survive Cuddyer’s return on Aug. 11, but he laid claim to the starting job. While his numbers against southpaws need improvement, the young left fielder slashed .270/.335/.506 with 14 doubles and nine home runs in 56 games. His best month of both the regular season and playoffs was – drum roll please – August. He finished with a .317/.405/.603 slash and 1.009 OPS, although some of that was likely powered by unsustainably high .356 BABIP and opposing pitchers’ lack of experience against the kid. He was mediocre in September/October and generally poor in the playoffs, although he did sport at .333/.313/.733 slash in the World Series when most Mets bats went quiet.
On the same day the rookie left fielder was called up, Alderson pulled the trigger on a deal with the division rival Atlanta Braves to solidify manager Terry Collins’ bench. Veteran utility players Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe replaced John Mayberry Jr. and Danny Muno, instantly transforming the bench from weakness to strength just in time for a playoff run.
Johnson, 33, played primarily second base for the Mets, but he did see at least nine innings at first, third, shortstop, left field and right field without making a fool of himself. At the plate he struggled in the playoffs, but slashed .250/.304/.414 in 49 games with New York. With the franchise paying a portion of his $1.5 million contract for his 10th major league season, he was an affordable security blanket.
Uribe, 36, served more in a mentorship role as a former starter at the tail end of his career. Finishing his 15th year in the major leagues, Uribe handled second base, third base and designated hitter for New York. Despite a decent eye and very powerful swing, the veteran only slashed .219/.301/.430 with six home runs in 44 regular season games. He injured his chest diving for a ground ball, spending the last few weeks of the regular season and nearly all of the postseason on the DL. Uribe did record an RBI single in his only World Series plate appearance. He was earning $6.5 million this past season.
The short version of all of that is Cespedes did help the offense, but there it wasn’t just him; injured players, callups and veteran backups played a major role. And considering he wasn’t at his best when the club was, there’s a substantial argument to be made against paying him a huge contract in favor of smaller, smarter deals. Center field, for example, is an issue entering 2016 with Juan Lagares battling injury and struggling against lefties. Denard Span disappointed in 2015, but could be a great signing on a short, team-friendly deal to prove his worth. Jason Heyward will end up signing a mega-contract, but at age 26 with a solid mix of speed, defense, power and on-base skills, he would make more sense than the power-focused Cespedes for the Mets. Wilmer Flores showed some ability to play shortstop with Ruben Tejada sidelined for the playoffs, but signing a solid defender with an average bat like Alexei Ramirez to a reasonable deal could bolster the infield behind the team’s stellar pitching.