Keeping Yoenis Cespedes, Mets Step Up to the Plate


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Yoenis Cespedes, who helped the Mets reach the wild-card game in 2016, agreed to a four-year, $110 million deal.

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This was the test, the proving ground for the Mets as annual playoff contenders. At some point, they would have to take a risk to keep their new identity. By agreeing to a reported four-year, $110 million contract extension with Yoenis Cespedes on Tuesday, they have.

Given how desperately the Mets needed him back, the deal looks reasonable. Cespedes turned 31 last month, the same age as Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano when they scored 10-year contracts earlier this decade. Those players were changing teams and used leverage to the fullest. Cespedes never wanted to leave.

He showed that last winter, when he returned with a three-year deal that everybody knew would last only one season. As an All-Star who led the Mets back to October, Cespedes dutifully exercised his opt-out clause and entered free agency again. Yet he did not play this out deep into the winter, or force the Mets into an instantly regrettable deal.

Even so, he made out very well. Cespedes’s $27.5 million average annual salary matches the second highest ever for a major league position player, after Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera ($31 million). It is also a record for the Mets. They had to go somewhere they had never gone before, and they did.

In terms of total value, this is not the richest deal in team history. The last two that were more expensive: the eight-year, $138 million extension for David Wright, and the six-year, $137.5 million deal the Mets gave Johan Santana after trading for him in 2007. Santana and Wright were both younger at the start of those contracts than Cespedes is now, but injuries doomed Santana and haunt Wright now.

The Santana deal — and the wasted dollars spent on Jason Bay, Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez — roughly coincided with the Bernard L. Madoff scandal, which ravaged the Mets’ finances. The Wilpons drastically chopped payroll, and their forced retreat worked. Under Sandy Alderson, the Mets groomed the prospects Omar Minaya left behind, added more, and won the 2015 National League pennant.

A wild card followed in 2016, when Cespedes helped rescue the Mets as their season seemed to collapse under an avalanche of injuries. When he returned from a quadriceps injury on Aug. 19, the Mets were under .500. He hit .364 through the end of the month, pointing the Mets to a winning course.

After their playoff loss to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants, the Mets faced an off-season in which Cespedes and second baseman Neil Walker could leave as free agents. The two combined for 54 homers last season and had the highest on-base percentages of any Mets regulars: .354 for Cespedes, .347 for Walker.

Losing either would have challenged a lineup that struggled to reach base and averaged just 4.14 runs per game, tied with Milwaukee for 11th in the N.L. But the Mets quickly retained Walker, who took a one-year, $17.2 million qualifying offer to rebuild value after back surgery, and now Cespedes has returned.

The Mets should not be congratulated too heartily. The Cespedes deal is merely what a big-market contender with a bargain rotation is supposed to do. But it shows that the post-Madoff Mets really are serious, willing to make a sensible gamble on a slugger they now know and trust. According to terms of the new deal disclosed by three people directly involved in it, the Mets’ full-season outlays to Cespedes, including last season, come to $137.5 million for five years — premium value for a premium talent.

Cespedes has flaws. He is prone to striking out, and his on-base percentage across two recent seasons — 2013 and 2014 — was about .300. If he regresses, he will seem overpaid. Some shorter-term deals, like Philadelphia’s five-year contracts to Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee and the Angels’ five-year Josh Hamilton debacle, were hardly bargains.

But the Mets had no choice. This is their moment to spend big on the lineup, with their starting pitchers still so far from reaching the open market. Jacob deGrom cannot be a free agent until after the 2020 season, a year before Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz. Matt Harvey is up after 2018.

All had arm trouble last season, and now the redoubtable Bartolo Colon is gone to Atlanta. But it is still an encouraging foundation, and to waste it by skimping on the lineup — and passing on a fair deal like this — would have been insulting to the fans.

There is still work to do. The bullpen needs help, especially with closer Jeurys Familia’s status uncertain because of a possible domestic-violence suspension. The outfield is crowded, with no real spot for Jay Bruce, who makes $13 million. The Mets need more from catcher and first base next season.

But the Mets answered their most pressing questions on Tuesday, for the small and big pictures. They retained their most productive hitter and showed they can still handle the risk of a nine-figure contract. The most electrifying hitter in New York stays right where he belongs.

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