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Yoenis Cespedes' $110M Free-Agent Deal a Win-Win for Him, New York Mets

Since Yoenis Cespedes and the New York Mets seem so right for one another, it's fitting they would agree to a contract that's so right for one another.

A reunion between Cespedes and the Mets was the big news coming off the hot stove Tuesday.

The 31-year-old outfielder became a free agent when he opted out of a three-year, $75 million contract in early November, which prompted questions about whether he would find a better deal elsewhere. Instead, he found a better deal at the same place he's called home since the 2015 trade deadline.

After Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported the deal was done, Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports spilled the details:

According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, Cespedes also got full no-trade protection.

And so, the 2016-17 MLB offseason recorded its first major signing. Cespedes' deal is worth more than twice the $52 million Josh Reddick got from the Houston Astros in his own four-year contract. It's appropriate Cespedes was the one to do the deed, as he was widely considered the best free agent available this winter.

The bigger surprise was that the Mets signed Cespedes. They always loomed as the best fit for him, but whether they could make the financials work was a big question from the beginning.

It became an even bigger question when Mike Puma of the New York Post ran out this report last week:

Within the industry, there is a growing sense the star outfielder will command a five-year deal, which would leave the Mets facing a major decision on their immediate future.

As it stands, the Mets are likely committed to signing the 31-year-old if a four-year contract in the $100 million-to-$110 million neighborhood can be hammered out, according to an industry source, but there is less clarity on the matter when an additional year — which could push the value of a deal beyond $130 million — is considered.

A deal in that neighborhood was hardly out of the question. For instance, Tim Dierkes, Steve Adams and Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors projected Cespedes would find a five-year, $125 million contract.

The fact that the Mets brought him back for one fewer year and for significantly less guaranteed money was a big win for them. And at $27.5 million per season, they'll pay him the rough equivalent of the salary they just fit onto their payroll in 2016.

And just as important, they retained a hugely important part of their lineup.

Cespedes has done nothing but mash for the Mets since they acquired him from the Detroit Tigers in July 2015. He OPS'd .942 with 17 home runs over the last two months of that season and returned to OPS .884 with 31 homers in 2016.

Cespedes' production has gone back and forth between propelling the Mets offense to greatness and saving it from utter ruin. Without him in 2015, New York would not have caught fire like it did. Without him in 2016, an even worse fate than finishing tied for 11th in the National League in runs would have been in store.

The reality that this arrangement will continue at a reasonable rate for four more years makes it easier for the Mets to swallow the downsides that are part of living with Cespedes. Those include his occasional defensive lapses and the aches and pains that have limited him to under 140 games in three of his five major league seasons.

Of course, his status as an easily marketable superstar is another bonus that makes him worth the occasional annoyances. Cespedes is media-shy, but his fondness for long dingers and shiny objects gives him a larger-than-life persona that's perfect for baseball's biggest media market.

But lest anyone think Cespedes did the Mets a favor by agreeing to a possibly below-market deal, let's pump the brakes for a second.

Neither the years nor the dollars jump off the page relative to past free-agent contracts, but the average annual value of Cespedes' deal is no joke. Here's Rosenthal putting it in perspective:

So to that extent, Cespedes' new contract makes him one of the highest-paid players in baseball history. And in the long run, the relatively short length of it could ensure there's more where that came from.

Though Cespedes is still an excellent athlete who runs well and throws as mightily as any outfielder, his main attraction is his power. It was trending down for a while there, but he's since turned into one of the best mashers in baseball. Over the last two seasons, he ranked 12th among qualified hitters in ISO (isolated power) with a mark of .251.

Cespedes has always had the swing path to get to this point, as he's generally hit more fly balls than ground balls. What he needed to start doing was applying his tremendous raw power more consistently.

His hard-contact percentages reveal he's done just that:

  • 2012: 33.0%
  • 2013: 31.6%
  • 2014: 31.1%
  • 2015: 35.8%
  • 2016: 39.3%

Cespedes added yet another layer to his slugging transformation in 2016: For the first time in his career, he walked more often than the average hitter.

Corinne Landrey of FanGraphs looked at the precedent for this last week and came away unconvinced that this new habit has guaranteed lasting power. However, it might. Cespedes did improve his plate discipline, after all, and his power is certainly a reason for pitchers to be careful with him.

If he remains a disciplined power hitter over the next four seasons, there should be a market for him in his next dance with free agency—even if his other skills have eroded between the ages of 31 and 35. As much as teams like young, well-rounded players, they've shown they're willing to shower money on older, one-dimensional players so long as that one dimension is a dangerous bat.

To wit, Carlos Beltran, Nelson Cruz and Victor Martinez each got about $15 million per season in a multiyear contract. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista should do the same this winter.

If Cespedes follows in their footsteps, his new contract will be just as easy to appreciate then as it is now. Maybe he could have found a bigger deal, but he settled for the better deal.

    

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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