In an eventful offseason, perhaps no news was more unexpected than the roller coaster ride Mets fans have been on with Yoenis Cespedes. And while there haven’t been a ton of twists and turns, at least not yet, there was the news that he agreed to restructure his contract, rather than risk losing all of it in some type of arbitration process. And now there’s been video of him working out, which leads many to think that not only might he contribute in 2020 but it might be as soon as Opening Day.
Mets fans have fond memories of Cespedes, created nearly as soon as he joined the club in 2015, as he brought a powerful bat to the lineup and relegated Juan Lagares to the reserve role he was meant to play. In those 57 games with the Mets in 2015, Cespedes put up a .942 OPS, which translated into a 155 OPS+. He seemingly did it all.
Cespedes was a free agent following the 2015 season and since then, he’s re-signed with the Mets two times. But there have been two problems since those magical first two months with the Mets. First, and most importantly, Cespedes has played in just 251 games out of a possible 648 games in that span. Secondly, he hasn’t been the same hitter he was for the club in 2015. When he has been on the field the past four years, Cespedes has an .877 OPS and a 137 OPS+.
Make no mistake – those are still very good numbers and it’s possible they’re being dragged down by the injuries he’s had. It would have been a blessing to have had those numbers over 150 games each of the past four years. But right now the Mets have to ask themselves two questions: How likely is it that Cespedes can play at something approaching full time and how likely is it that he can be at that 137 OPS+ number if he does?
And while they’re pondering that, they also have to ask themselves: How much faith should they put in J.D. Davis’ 2019? In case you’ve forgotten, Davis came to the Mets after two uninspiring cups of coffee with the Astros and proceeded to post an .895 OPS and a 138 OPS+ over 453 PA in his first shot at somewhat consistent playing time in the majors.
It’s impossible not to notice that Davis’ OPS+ last year was nearly identical to what Cespedes has produced the past four years.
Ordinarily, one would prefer Cespedes’ defense and track record over Davis’ first season with the Mets, which was buoyed by a .355 BABIP. But should the Mets jump through hoops to get Cespedes in the lineup, given his uncertain health? Can he run without risk of re-injuring himself? Can he still be anything remotely like the Gold Glove Award winner he was in 2015?
And what about Davis? Can he improve his defense and baserunning over what he did in those areas in 2019? Also, is there any reason to believe that he can duplicate that ultra-high BABIP over 600 PA?
Recall that the Mets had a somewhat similar situation following the 2018 season. They had a guy be extremely productive in less than a full season’s worth of playing time, thanks in part to an ultra-high BABIP. In that case, the Mets’ belief in him was at best half full. They believed in him enough not to trade him. But they didn’t believe in him enough to give him the job.
That player of course is Jeff McNeil. The new GM made his position on McNeil crystal clear when he announced that second base was a position of “primary need.” The guy brought in to play 2B was pretty much a failure last year. Meanwhile, McNeil followed up his .359 BABIP in 248 PA in 2018 with a .337 mark over 567 PA in 2019. After posting a 138 OPS+ in 2018, McNeil followed up with a 144 OPS+ last season.
Now the question is: Does the McNeil experience influence how the club handles Davis?
My opinion is that the choice the Mets had with McNeil following his 2018 season was easier than the one they have now with Davis. Sure, McNeil did it in half the playing time as Davis. But he played a position where he could fall off significantly and still be an asset to the club. Also, with no other good internal option, the Mets would have to go outside the organization to get a replacement and pay the cost, either in prospects or dollars. And the Mets chose to go outside and decided to pay both ways. It’s hard to imagine it going any worse.
And now we have to trust this same crew to make the right decision in LF. At least this time around both options are internal, so they shouldn’t end up shooting themselves in the face. Still, it can’t be an easy path to maneuver.
How do you tell Davis after the year he put up in 2019 that he’s a bench player? On the flip side, how do you tell Cespedes, a guy you presumably threatened to void his contract and ended up giving him an incentive-laden restructuring, that he’s not the starter when healthy?
An optimist might say it’s a good problem to have. A realist might say that it’s guaranteed to make one guy unhappy, which might not be the ideal way to start off the tenure of a rookie manager who wasn’t exactly your first choice.
Of course, we have to see how Cespedes does once Grapefruit League games get underway. Maybe he proves himself unable to go. Or perhaps he has a terrific Spring Training and makes himself a viable trade candidate.
Ideally, one of these players gets the job and puts up over 500 PA while playing LF. And I don’t know which one I’m rooting for to get the gig.