Finally, after a half-decade of slumming with the sort of payrolls reserved for teams in flyover country and acting like their parsimony wasn't a direct result of sharing a bed with the biggest schemer since Charles Ponzi himself, the owners of the New York Mets are less than two months away from the greatest challenge to their austerity. The man at the forefront of their playoff push is a free agent, and the future of Yoenis Cespedes with the Mets hinges on Fred and Jeff Wilpon spending like major league owners and not the paupers they've fancied themselves.
Finally, a true referendum on the Wilpon ownership. Regularly among the highest-payroll teams in the major leagues over the first decade of the century, the Mets used their Bernie Madoff-induced poverty to enter into this unbecoming period where they don't even bother to meet with the marquee free agents because they wouldn't dare wade in that financial pool. The Mets were David Wright, Curtis Granderson and a bunch of guys plucked from the dollar bin. The story goes the Mets were rebuilding, though that was just a red herring; never did the Mets execute the full teardown of the Cubs or Astros. They forced general manager Sandy Alderson to try and win with the resources incompatible with such a goal.
Finally, because Alderson and his crew turned the Mets into a player-development apparatus, particularly with pitchers, they got good in spite of ownership. And now, with the Mets in possession of the National League's largest divisional lead, winners of seven straight, fighting for home-field advantage against the Los Angeles Dodgers in what's sure to be the most intriguing divisional series matchup, the prospect of …
1. Yoenis Cespedes leaving Flushing after this season becomes evermore realistic. Do not see this as the tooting of the sad trombone so much as a reminder that Cespedes has played himself into the sort of monetary range from which the Mets have shied since double-barreling Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana.
And unlike Beltran and Santana, who were long among the best at their position, Cespedes crystallized his place near the top of this monstrous free-agent class only in the past few months. Coming into this season, Cespedes, 29, was regarded as a good outfielder with monstrous power and enough flaws to keep him from ascending into that elite class.
For now, thanks to a .310/.355/.684 run with the Mets that will earn him downballot MVP consideration – because, you know, Travis d'Arnaud slashing .306/.391/.586 or Michael Conforto .304/.371/.559 or Curtis Granderson .271/.395/.507 or Wilmer Flores .312/.342/.518 over the same time span hasn't had anything to do with the Mets' surge, no, sir – Cespedes' free agent stock is tech-IPO high.
Six weeks ago, a nine-figure deal seemed optimistic, according to two GMs, two personnel men and two agents surveyed recently by Yahoo Sports. The six now believe discussions with the soon-to-be-30-year-old Cespedes will begin at $125 million and end up perhaps in the $160 million range, a staggering figure for someone who the last two seasons posted on-base percentages of .294 and .301. Baseball, like so many other avenues in life, cannot help but fall into the recency-bias trap.
Forget that Cespedes' home run-per-fly ball rate as a Met sits at 23.2 percent, nearly double his career mark. Or that he still walks about as frequently as a 6-month-old. Or, yes, that 30-year-olds who sign seven-year-plus deals have not found the greatest success in the past. These are the sorts of arguments that will emanate from Citi Field should the Mets stumble in their efforts to re-sign him.
Here's the thing: No matter how much Cespedes gets, he's not going to be the highest-paid player this offseason. That honor belongs to …
2. David Price, whom all six agreed will bank a deal for more than $200 million. It's a crazy price to pay any pitcher … and a perfectly reasonable one when considering the player, the market and the history of what elite starters get.
When Clayton Kershaw smashed the threshold with a seven-year, $220 million deal, no longer was $200 million as scary a number. Max Scherzer topped it this offseason, albeit with a big chunk of deferred money, and with Price's track record and his performance this season, he's one clean MRI shy of it being the lock of the century.
The walk year, as Cespedes shows, is a big deal, and here are Price's numbers alongside those of Scherzer and Jon Lester, who got $155 million over six years last offseason after what's a damn-near-identical march to free agency as Price's:
Scherzer and Lester signed their deals at 30 years old, and Price will do the same. He'll enter free agency with about 200 innings more on his arm than Scherzer and about 150 fewer than Lester. Price's career numbers are far better, too: Not just his 3.69-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio but his ERA+ of 126 that factors for ballpark and his Fielding Independent Pitching rate of 3.21, which attempts to take away defensive considerations. Both beat Scherzer (117, 3.39) and Lester (121, 3.58).
And here's the best part: Price may not even be the best pitcher in the class, let alone the best player. The argument for …
3. Zack Greinke coming off a season in which he put up the first ERA+ over 200 since … Zack Greinke in 2009. In history, only five pitchers have had at least two 200-plus ERA+ seasons: Pedro Martinez, Walter Johnson, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Christy Mathewson. Now that's some company.
Because Greinke turns 32 in October, the likelihood of him snagging a seven-year deal isn't nearly as high as with Price. One GM, though, suggested Greinke could instead break Kershaw's record for average annual value on a deal and sign for five years and $175 million once he opts out of the final three seasons of his current contract with the Dodgers, which at this point is a formality.
The Greinke-Kershaw-Jake Arrieta race for the NL Cy Young should provide some drama to the final three weeks in a league where the playoffs are all but decided, short of figuring out who's going to win the Central and who out of the Mets and Dodgers will grab home-field advantage. Not having to fret over actually locking down the playoff spot is such a luxury, the kind that allows …
4. Johnny Cueto to tinker down the stretch and figure out how he started to look like the biggest trade-deadline bust since Victor Zambrano.
(Before we get to Cueto, a non sequitur brought upon by the man Zambrano was traded for, Scott Kazmir: The fact that neither he nor John Lackey, Mike Leake, Dexter Fowler, Howie Kendrick, Wei-Yin Chen, Yovani Gallardo, Daniel Murphy and plenty more don't make this version of 10 Degrees speaks to just how special a class this is. And that's not to mention those like Cueto, whose 2015 performances haven't exactly assisted their cash-in cases.)
When Cueto was traded from Cincinnati to Kansas City, one GM said, he was on track "to get 160 or 170 (million dollars)" this offseason. All it took to readjust that number down significantly, the GM said, were Cueto's last five starts, in which he gave up 48 hits and 30 runs in 26 1/3 innings.
The coup de grace was Sunday night, when Baltimore ambushed him for 11 hits, including four home runs. At one point, Cueto raised his arms to the sky, as if to ask the baseball gods how one of the best pitchers of the past five years turned into a broken mess three weeks before the playoffs. "If he doesn't start pitching better," the GM said, "the contract ain't gonna be big."
Plenty of others have jeopardized their paydays. One reason the Nationals' season devolved into such an abject mess is the cratering of their free agents to be. While Jordan Zimmermann put up a fairly standard season, his low strikeout rate and previous Tommy John surgery will keep him, at best, on the low end of nine figures. Ian Desmond, on the other hand, won't get anywhere close to the $107 million he reportedly turned down, and Doug Fister may have to take a one-year deal to rebuild value after a year in which he couldn't stay healthy and was demoted to the bullpen.
At least he won't have a qualifying offer attached to him like Desmond and Jeff Samardzija and Matt Wieters. A rough walk year is bad enough. A rough walk year compounded by a market-crushing qualifying offer can cost the player millions because teams are hesitant to give up prized draft picks, especially on the sort of shorter-term deals those like Samardzija and Wieters might be more inclined to sign if they do want to chase a mega-deal next offseason.
How the market views them will be fascinating. Is Samardzija a solid No. 2 coming off a bad year or someone whose decline already started? Is Wieters a franchise-type catcher worth locking up for half a decade or a big risk coming off Tommy John surgery? And, for that matter, is …
5. Chris Davis the best power hitter in the major leagues or a liability because of his strikeouts and the ugly aging curve of big-bodied power hitters? Though the answer for all three is probably somewhere in the middle, free agency is no place for nuance. It is about big names and big numbers, and Davis' hammer right now says 42.
That's his big league-leading number of home runs, and while home runs this season are back at pre-2014 levels, plenty of teams cannot resist the idea of anchoring their lineup with a 30-year-old who two seasons ago whacked 53 homers.
Granted, Davis last year couldn't even crack the Mendoza Line and scored a 25-game suspension for amphetamine use. And barring some sort of miraculous intervention, he's going to strike out more than 200 times this year, a number that will scare off enough teams to ensure the market isn't too terribly saturated with teams that want Davis. Of all the free agents, he created the widest chasm in guesses for ultimate value. One person thought $60 million, another $150 million, and because Scott Boras is Davis' agent, guessing on the higher side is usually the safer bet. Chances are Davis waits to see what …
6. Jason Heyward gets and moves from there. Almost everyone agreed that Heyward will be the bellwether of this market. One personnel man said he thinks Heyward never hits the free-agent market and re-signs with St. Louis for seven years and $140 million. Another GM agrees, though at a much higher valuation: eight years, $175 million, with an opt-out after four seasons.
The opt-out makes plenty of sense; Heyward's agent, Victor Menocal, works with Casey Close, who negotiated Greinke's opt-out as well as the one in Kershaw's deal that triggers after the 2018 season. To get Heyward paid for four years and send him back into free agency at 30 years old is indeed a classic Close maneuver.
Whether a player who hasn't been an All-Star since his rookie season and at .291/.351/.433 this year is having his best showing since that debut is worth $175 million is a different question entirely. Heyward suffers from some Davis syndrome, in that it's tough to peg what he ultimately fetches. Because it's free agency, and free agency abides by a single rule – it only takes one team to be dumb – guessing on the high side is usually the safest route.
And yet getting Heyward will require the team to take into account that he's barely 26 and that room for growth as a hitter is baked in to the price. Heyward's got the glove and the wheels, no question. For consistent results, on the other hand …
7. Justin Upton is a safe bet. Like Heyward, he's a young free agent, his 28th birthday last month. And, similarly, Upton is bigger in name than production, someone who runs conflagrant and polar and relies on the hot streaks to balance out the cold.
Somehow, he ends up in the same place almost every season.
Now, that's a good player. With the home runs, it's almost certainly a $100 million-plus player. "He's fighting his pedigree, though," said one agent without a free agent outfielder in the upcoming class. "He was a 1-1, and he's not Bryce Harper or Gerrit Cole or David Price or Carlos Correa."
Upton is good, quite good, the sort of good that for …
8. Ben Zobrist will mean the first huge payday of his career. When Zobrist signed a four-year, $18 million extension that included two club options, he was coming off his first season of full-time duty. Even though Zobrist was 28, the Tampa Bay Rays understood they'd stumbled upon the sort of player whose value in the era of the 12-man pitching staff can't be overstated.
In less than two months with Kansas City, Zobrist has played second base, third base, left field and right field. He's hitting .318/.395/.510 for the Royals and finishing strong at the best time possible. Because for everything in Zobrist's favor – the versatility, the on-base percentage, the switch hitting – one number will attach itself to him this offseason: 34.
That's how old Zobrist is. And over the last decade, the most an over-34 player reaped in free agency was Victor Martinez's $68 million deal last offseason. The Braves gifted Derek Lowe $60 million. Nelson Cruz's current $57 million looks like an absolute bargain. The Yankees gave Jorge Posada $52 million. And that covers the $50 million-plus contracts.
Revenues being what they are, inflation being what it is, Zobrist will get more than $50 million. The Martinez deal, actually, is probably a good proxy for where he can hope to end up. Zobrist's skillset tends to age well, and he has shown no sign of slowing down, whether plugging second base as he's currently doing or when …
9. Alex Gordon hit the disabled list and Zobrist capably took over left field for him. Gordon, 32 this offseason, will be a good test case to see just how much an injury can affect a player's value. The likelihood is the groin strain that sidelined him for nearly two months is but a blip and teams see Gordon for what he is: the best fielding corner outfielder in the American League, a devilishly clever baserunner and someone whose .394 on-base percentage and .457 slugging percentage combine with the former two attributes to form a fantastic all-around left fielder.
In other words: Gordon is the ideal version of Jason Heyward. He won't get paid like Heyward because baseball years are like dog years, and the six that separate them might as well be a lifetime. Still, the Royals need some serious soul-searching, because as much as Gordon means to the franchise – he bridges its past ignominy with its current success and sets a work-ethic tone that never, ever goes unnoticed – giving more than $100 million to a player in likely descent can cripple a low-revenue franchise.
They've got $16 million in dead money each of the next two years going to Jason Vargas and Omar Infante, and while Alex Rios and Jeremy Guthrie's expiring deals will free up about $15 million, much of that will go to raises for Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain. Everything is barreling toward the 2017 season, after which Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, Alcides Escobar, Wade Davis and Danny Duffy are free agents. Signing Gordon doesn't preclude re-signing some of the potential departures; it just makes the task tougher.
Free agency today is a joke, completely backward and in need of the sort of fundamental overhaul that warrants a progressive reimagining of the baseball ecosystem. MLB and the players' association simply aren't ready to undertake that yet – one can dream that if the parties avoid a work stoppage before the 2017 season that they can parlay the goodwill into mutually beneficial changes the next time – and because of that …
10. Yoenis Cespedes is going to get paid far more than what he's going to be worth. That's how free agency goes, and it is so stupid, this system that rewards players for what they've done instead of what they're exceedingly likely to do. It's not Cespedes' fault, of course; if someone wants to pay him $150 million, he'd be a goober not to take it.
Free agency puts owners good and bad in no-win situations. For all the ways in which the Wilpons actively torpedoed the Mets over the last decade, criticizing any owner for not spending in free agency when spending in free agency is such a desperate pursuit is difficult. And yet with all the restrictions on spending internationally and via the draft, baseball has moved itself to this ugly place that encourages teams to splurge in the most inefficient manner possible.
The Wilpons' Catch-22 is particularly rich: If they spend on Cespedes they're probably going to regret it, and if they don't spend they're going to be castigated as Scrooges who have no business owning a New York franchise, particularly considering a Jacob deGrom-Matt Harvey-Noah Syndergaard-Steven Matz-Zack Wheeler rotation – total cost: around $7 million – deserves as much support as possible.
Karma, free agency style, is headed to New York this offseason, and it will tell us what sorts of owners the Wilpons want to be. The ones who see the hero worship surrounding Cespedes and, even if it isn't the sort of investment they grew so used to with Madoff – one with guaranteed returns – decide to jump in anyway. Or the same old Wilpons, tight-fisted, recalcitrant, unwilling to do the sort of thing that may be difficult but that baseball's current economic system demands.
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