Remember when Yoenis Cespedes ghosted the Mets and subsequently opted out of the 2020 baseball season? Feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?
And while it’s hardly a frontburner issue during the pennant race that is proceeding without him, his reasoning remained an unsolved mystery. And we don’t like leaving loose ends untied.
Based on new reporting, Cespedes’ opt-out appeared to come as a result of a blend of persistent concerns over his contract incentives and displeasure over the way in which the Mets were using him. Both concerns converged on the morning of Aug. 2, when he abandoned the team in Atlanta.
In recent weeks, Cespedes has told friends that he left because he did not like serving as designated hitter. He wanted to be engaged in the game as a full player and didn’t enjoy only batting. Because of this, he has said in private, he wasn’t having fun.
In reality, the Mets received mixed signals over how much outfield Cespedes wanted to play. And inside the clubhouse, it was also obvious that Cespedes was angry -- paranoid, in the eyes of some -- and convinced that the Mets were trying to reduce his playing time in order to avoid hitting his incentives.
The team had reworked Cespedes’ contract over the winter, after he violated its terms during an encounter with a wild boar on his Florida ranch. That significantly reduced the amount of guaranteed money for 2020 from $29.5 million to $6 million, which would then be prorated because of the pandemic.
The experience left Cespedes sensitive to any whiff that the team was trying to prevent him from reaching the incentives that would result in more pay.
He earned his first bonus when he made the Opening Day roster and his salary jumped from the prorated $6 million to a prorated $11 million. In theory, the club could have refused to activate Cespedes until he had completed a progression to play the outfield, but they wanted his bat in the lineup.
Cespedes hit a game-winning home run that day, demonstrating that he still had at least some thunder left in his bat and had retained his flare for the dramatic.
But in the fourth game of the season, Cespedes found himself on the bench. He complained to manager Luis Rojas, as was previously reported by the New York Post, and accused the Mets of trying to manipulate his incentives.
Rojas and GM Brodie Van Wagenen -- who as an agent had negotiated Cespedes’ four-year, $110-million contract in 2017 -- countered that the team had developed a plan to keep Cespedes healthy by resting him about once a week. Cespedes did not want to hear it.
Friday, July 31 brought a previously unreported hitch. Players received their paychecks that day for the time in the regular season, and many were stunned by how light those checks were. That was because of the March 26 agreement between MLB and the Players Association that resulted in a salary advance of $170 million to be divided among players.
According to two agents, many players paid back their advances in that July 31 check (there were other, scaled ways of paying it back; some who didn’t have enough in one check reimbursed it over a few pay periods). As a result, scores of big leaguers found themselves annoyed by a tiny number that day.
Did Cespedes, whose contract was already complex and whose faith in the Mets had soured, think that the low paycheck was more evidence that he was getting screwed?
People who knew him wondered (Cespedes’ agent, Kyle Thousand, has not returned multiple phone calls since the opt out).
Two days after the shock of the small check, Cespedes learned during a pregame hitters’ meeting on Zoom that he would not be playing in a series finale against the Braves. It was just his second time out of the lineup in 10 games, putting him on track to hit all his incentives.
Rojas and Van Wagenen never had the chance to make that case. Cespedes vanished. The team sent security to his hotel room. Cespedes’ agent informed the Mets that he was opting out due to concerns about the COVID-19 virus.
People who knew Cespedes -- as well as another person can know a quiet, mercurial character like him, at least -- wondered if he was secretly spooked by his performance Despite the big homer on Opening Day, Cespedes was batting .161 with 15 strikeouts in 31 at-bats.
But if that was a factor, no one heard Cespedes explicitly say it. While still with the team, he did verbalize anger regarding his contract. More recently, he has talked about his distaste for DHing.
The upshot of all this is that Cespedes’ Mets career is over -- and his highly entertaining time in baseball might be, too.