Just a month before pitchers and catchers are set to report to spring training, the defending NL champion New York Mets and top free agent Yoenis Cespedes have agreed to a three year deal worth 75M. The contract itself is intricate in many ways; Cespedes has an opt out clause (a popular component in deals this off-season) after just one year. The first year of the contract is worth a whopping 27.5M – a stark contrast from the conventional back loaded deals signed by top free agents in the past decade.
Cespedes, of course, was the driving force that propelled the Mets all the way to the World Series with 17 homers and a .287/.337/.604 triple slash after being acquired from the Tigers at the trade deadline. His season long numbers with Detroit and New York (35 homers, a .291 batting average, and 42 doubles) seemed to line him up for a handsome payday; however, with younger outfielders Jason Heyward (10/184M) and Justin Upton (6/132M) going hot off the grill this off-season, Cespedes found his list of suitors to be sparse. Traditional big spenders such as the Yankees and Angels were quiet on the free agent front this winter and the teams with enough budget to meet Cespedes’ asking price (reported to be around 6 years at 22M AAV) decided to go in other directions.
After such a productive season, Cespedes expected a bidding war for his services, but was unable to sell hot. Even during Baltimore’s month long saga with Chris Davis (in which they shockingly offered 7/150M, Davis shockingly turned it down, and Baltimore ceased negotiations until the parties agreed upon a 7/161M deal), Cespedes failed to swoop in and sign with Baltimore. One issue with Cespedes is that in his two years before the monster 2015, he averaged merely 24 home runs, a .446 slugging percentage, and a paltry .298 OBP. Those numbers indicate a solid middle of the order bat, but are a far cry from the key cog he was for New York in 2015. Teams were clearly wary that Cespedes was performing at a high level in his walk year to attain a sizable contract. With a month until spring training, Cespedes found himself looking for suitors, including his former Mets, who seemingly went in another direction by signing Alejandro de Aza as the fourth big league outfielder in their roster.
By agreeing to a three year deal (New York was uncomfortable going any higher), Cespedes found himself in unknown waters – a top free agent losing leverage to a team. Contracts have consistently risen to colossal proportions in this century, and each top signing seemed to only further stretch the market (The exception being the qualifying offer flaws that plagued Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew, Ervin Santana, and Nelson Cruz). Cespedes conceding to a reasonable three year deal in New York represents the first coup for a team on the free agent market in quite some time, and will certainly establish a precedent for negotiations in future off-seasons. Will outfielders over thirty years old continue to receive six or seven year deals sure to go sour in the last two or three? I believe teams have been hurt too often by these contracts to be willing to capitulate to players that aren’t surefire superstars, such as the Jacoby Ellsbury 7/153M albatross with the Yankees or Shin Soo Choo’s 7/130M deal with Texas. The new market may mean less years for those free agents, made up for by the perquisites that Cespedes received such as the early opt out and front loaded money.
Mets GM Sandy Alderson has one of the top contenders in the National League, complete with a trio of young aces, established veteran bats, and up and comers such as outfielder Michael Conforto. The resigning of Cespedes makes them a compelling team to watch in 2016, but the negotiation process will have a ripple effect throughout the MLB for years. Alderson undoubtedly played a great hand of poker, and his tough stance earned him one to three years of a good player who will push New York to contention in the short term while not sinking the team financially in the long term. This contract was a secure investment for the Mets while palatable for Cespedes (who can use the opt out and sign a lucrative deal while still having earned 27.5M), and this was the first compromise between a team and a top free agent in quite some time. Additionally, it can not be forgotten that if Cespedes opts out this fall, the Mets can receive a valuable compensation pick through the qualifying offer. Sandy Alderson earned his fellow GMs leverage that they have not had in years; what remains to be seen is how they will use it.