I keep coming back to Nora Ephron’s movies because in a turbulent, frightening world, sometimes you just want to reach for the tissues and watch Meg Ryan end up with Tom Hanks as “When I Fall in Love” swells in the background (even if Sleepless in Seattle was a little creepy).
After a heartwarming reunion last offseason, Yoenis Céspedes and the Mets just released their You’ve Got Mail, a four-year, $110 million pact that will make Céspedes the second-highest-paid position player in baseball this coming season.
This contract probably won’t have the $/WAR crowd scrambling for their Kool & the Gang records. Paying nine figures for the early 30s of someone who should be a corner outfielder is a risky proposition, but Céspedes is more than that to the Mets. Re-signing him is not only a statement of New York’s continued intention to compete; it also makes sense from a pure baseball perspective.
Céspedes was the first big leaguer in the current generation of Cuban defectors, followed by Yasiel Puig, Yoan Moncada, Jorge Soler, and the late José Fernández. He arrived in the Dominican Republic in 2011 and then signed with the Oakland A’s for four years and $36 million in time to debut the following spring at age 26. Several relatives, including his mother, defected to Turks and Caicos a year after he left, ultimately arriving in the U.S. in 2013. Though relations between the U.S. and Cuba have thawed after Fidel Castro stepped down in 2008, Céspedes’s is still a divided family: His son, also named Yoenis, is still in Cuba with his mother and hasn’t seen his father in five years.
Céspedes was a fan favorite over two and a half years in Oakland, where he hit .262/.318/.470, and after a half season each in Boston and Detroit, Céspedes was traded to the Mets at the deadline in 2015 for Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer. Céspedes exploded on his arrival to hit 17 home runs in two months and carry the Mets to their first pennant in 15 years. His breakout heralded the first glimmers of a bright future for fans of a Wilpon-damaged franchise. He was the best position player on the team in 2016 as the Mets returned to the playoffs, but his looming opt-out, combined with injuries to David Wright, Steven Matz, and Matt Harvey; the grotesque tone-deafness that marred José Reyes’s return to Citi Field; and Jeurys Familia’s domestic violence arrest, left the franchise at a crossroads. The Mets were coming off back-to-back playoff appearances with one of the best and deepest young pitching staffs in baseball. But injuries, the regression of Travis d’Arnaud (.247/.307/.323) and Michael Conforto (.220/.310/.414), and the impending free agency of Céspedes, Neil Walker, and Bartolo Colón could have ended those good times before they ever really got going.
Céspedes, in his year and change with the Mets, became not only the team’s foundational offensive player but a talismanic figure whom someone could feel good rooting for amid so much ugliness. He’s played the best baseball of his career in a Mets uniform, and the Mets and their fans (and their best pitcher) have loved him back for it.
Ahead of the 2017 season, Reyes and Curtis Granderson are entering the twilight of their careers, and Walker — who accepted a qualifying offer — is returning from a back injury, as is Lucas Duda. Apart from Asdrubal Cabrera, I don’t know if the Mets have another player who’s nailed-on to play 140 games and be an above-average hitter for his position. If they parted ways with Céspedes, the other free-agent options for that kind of player were Justin Turner and a bunch of first basemen. (Turner, for what it’s worth, posted a 136 OPS+ in three seasons with the Dodgers, but a 92 OPS+ in five seasons with the Mets and Orioles before that, because there’s a limit to how orange you can be and still hit a baseball.)
The contract itself works for both sides as well. By paying a higher salary over four years instead of stretching a lower average annual value over five or six, the Mets get to lock up Céspedes now while soaking up less of his decline phase, while Céspedes gets rich enough to ensure that his descendants will be able to roast all the whole pigs that their hearts desire.
The Mets still have to figure out how to fix Conforto and what to do with this past year’s deadline acquisition, fellow corner outfielder Jay Bruce, whose career took a tailspin in New York while Céspedes’s has flourished. But they’ve checked the biggest and most important item off their shopping list, and it’s still almost four weeks from Christmas.