You love him. You hate him. He can carry a team. He can make a costly error to lose the game. He can leave you with your jaw hanging low. He can make you use profanity that you never knew you had inside of you.
When the Mets signed outfielder Yoenis Cespedes in the offseason, it was deemed as something as a coup. After the Game 5 loss to Kansas City in the World Series, fans seemed split over bringing back the 30 year-old slugger. While fans were calling for Mets ownership to open the purse strings and sign Cespedes, others felt that after the poor showing in the World Series, costly error and pickoff at first withstanding, that it was okay if the Mets looked elsewhere to fill the void.
But what a void to fill. How many pure power hitters enter the free agent market in their prime in our modern age of baseball? With front offices signing their young talent to team friendly contracts early on in their young careers, fewer and fewer stars hit the open market, creating an emphasis on drafting and international signings.
When the Mets announced they signed Cespedes to a three year, $75 million contract with an opt-out after 2016, fans were amazed that the team was able to pull off such a rare signing, one in which the team got the star for their dollars and years. And Cespedes still is able to say that he obtained the highest AAV of the offseason, keeping both sides mutually content.
As the team and fans witnessed in August and September, Cespedes has the ability to carry the squad on his back, both with his mighty right-handed bat and cannon of an arm. I remember being at Citi Field during those months last season, and not leaving my seat when the broad five-foot-ten inch Cespedes glided effortlessly to the plate, bringing the tens of thousands of fans to their collective feet. How far would he hit this one? How many will he hit tonight? All questions that surmised while watching him on a nightly basis.
But there is a downside to Cespedes’ game, the untimely lapses that will occur whether it is on the base paths or patrolling center field. As fans are aware, Cespedes is much more adept to playing left field, winning a Gold Glove in the process last season. Though when the Mets signed Cespedes, it was with the intention of having him man center on a near permanent basis, albeit the late inning defensive substitutions or occasional righty-lefty matchups, which would push Cespedes back to left. The trouble is, it’s late in his career to be teaching an ‘old dog new tricks’ so to speak, so there’s only so much we can expect from Cespedes in center field.
The miscue in Thursday’s spring exhibition against the Houston Astros is a perfect example of what I’m speaking of. In the top of the second, first baseman A.J. Reed crushed a 2-2 pitch off Matt Harvey which went over Cespedes’ head and planted underneath the center field wall. Cespedes raised his hands up as to indicate the ball was dead, which would place Reed at second base. However, the umpires made no call, and Reed jogged easily around the bases as Cespedes stood there and stared into the infield.
Second base umpire C.B. Bucknor came out to check on the matter, and declared the ball was in play the entire time, and that Cespedes had a clear path to be able to easily pick the ball up and throw it back into the infield.
Even Keith Hernandez, on the SNY broadcast of the game, seemed puzzled by Cespedes’ play, or lack thereof.
“What’s he doing? What’s he thinking, there’s nothing that can go underneath. No you can’t do that, the balls plainly visible.”
While different ballparks do have various ground rules, Spring Training is a different story. Terry Collins explained that he’s never broached the subject of ground rules, so it was a misunderstanding. Collins went on to further explain what was going through Cespedes’ head at the time.
“He thought it got stuck,” Collins said. “What had happened was the umpire went out and swiped the ball and said, ‘Okay, it wasn’t stuck underneath.’ It’s one of those things we could probably talk about a ground rule, which we don’t here in spring training too much. He thought the ball went under and stuck and just threw his hands up.”
Even so, Cespedes is a veteran player, one whose played in a multitude of ballparks and knows the intricacies and what’s deemed playable and not. And while some will argue that it’s only spring training games, it doesn’t quell any lingering worries and fears that we might see more Cespedes miscues heading into the regular season. If anything, Cespedes should be playing as perfect a center field as he can, knowing that these enduring thoughts still percolate through the media heading into the season, and wanting to have a fresh start. Christopher Russo ripped Cespedes’ defense recently on MLB Network and it was a hot topic on talk radio this past week.
Need I remind you of the September 8th game against the Nationals, when Michael Taylor took a Matt Harvey fastball back up the middle, which should’ve only tied the score. Yet, when Cespedes charged in from center to scoop the ball into his glove, the ball took a last second hop and went right over his glove. While it was a tough hop, many center fielders might have tried to center themselves more in front of the ball to field it. Being able to read how hard the ball is hit, and the different angles or hops that it might take in the path are part of the job description when penciled into the No. 8 designation on the field. That ended up being an inside-the-park home run, giving the Nationals the lead. Luckily the Mets rallied late to win the game 8-7.
But they weren’t so lucky in Game 1 of the World Series. Alcides Escobar smack the first pitch into left-center, with Cespedes trying to backhand the ball like he’s Willie Mays. Poor decision making yet again on his part.
I think Cespedes tries to get a bit too fancy for his own good out in center. While he does have range, and the aforementioned cannon of an arm, he needs to work on the fundamentals of center field, and be able to grasp all the aspects that come with manning that territory. One would hope that Cespedes has sought advice from Juan Lagares in spring, to pick his brain and see how he goes about different game situations. What better tutelage than from a well-regarded top 10 defensive center fielder?
We know Cespedes can crush the baseball as good as anyone in the game, the question is, will he be able limit the damage (the opposing team and his own) while patrolling center? Buckle in, this might be a bumpy ride.