It’s like a haircut, only with more Cespedes.
In the future, cadets in baseball general manager academies will gather around mock boardrooms and recreate the events of the great Yoenis Cespedes shortcut. They’ll be judged on their ability to focus on the mission while sticking to contractual parameters in a city gripped by panic, and their final grade will be based on their ability to extract a .542 slugging outfielder alive and intact from an exploding volcano.
In the lead-up to the Cespedes signing last week I’d become increasingly skeptical about it. I had my reasons.The Mets were still lurking in the bargain bin, targeting undervalued assets. Cespedes was a flamboyant flirtation, a whimsical interlude, like test driving a Mercedes AMG when you’re on a ’05 Malibu budget. It’s nice, something to dream about, but don’t scratch the leather.
The Mets had their numbers gremlins working overtime digging up market inefficiencies — mining for those discounted wins above replacement — rare jewels purchased at 1 win rates who are often worth considerably more. What’s the inefficiency du jour these days? OBP? Contact? Defense?
The focus lately is on players whose WAR totals skew upwards due to their defense. The perfect example of one such player is Juan Lagares in 2014. Lagares put up a WAR of 4.0 in 2014 with a UZR/150 of 25.3, so a sizable chunk of Lagares’ value is derived from his defense.
In 2014 Lagares was signed for the league minimum (.5 million) and he put up 4 WAR. If you take Matt Swartz’ estimate for $/fWAR, the value of 1 WAR in 2014 was $7.6 million … so Lagares secured production worth $30.4 million dollars (on the FA market) for a half a million bucks. You’d never think of paying a guy like Lagares $30 million because of his merely adequate 101 wRC+, 117 hits and 47 RBI, but if you believe in value metrics, Lagares was one of the best players on the 2014 Mets.
Now comes 2015 and a new extension, only Lagares reverts to league average defense and 1 WAR. The extension promises to pay him 2.5 million in 2016, 4.5 million in 2017, 6.5 million in 2018, and 9 million in 2019 for a total of $22.5 million over 4 years. But, regression notwithstanding, this is a major bargain for any 25 year old coming off a 4 WAR season no matter how you slice it.
Does anyone think the Mets would have been able to extend Lagares over 4 years for 22.5 million if that same 4 WAR was a function of his power, like say Conforto? No way. And therein lies the inefficiency if you will. Defensive metrics are problematic in how they factor into the WAR equation. The perception is that there’s a lot if inherent inconsistency in the way WAR incorporates a player’s total UZR. In a way, the market inefficiency may itself be a product of imprecise value metrics.
If Lagares continues to average 1 WAR per season he will still pay for himself by the conclusion of the contract, (this would be true even in 2019 because $/fWAR per inflation would rise to around 10.6 million). In the event that Lagares has another 2014 showing, he would essentially pay for his entire contract in one season. That, my friends, is a bargain — it is the definition of exploiting a market inefficiency. Lagares is a safe and cheap bet, and when you’re the Mets that’s what you go with, you don’t take $75 million dollar gambles on smokers with howitzer arms and bats full of moon shots.
The Mets proceeded to secure two up-the-middle switch hitters while simultaneously upgrading their defense — skill sets that register marginal upticks in price for potentially game changing abilities given the recent league-wide deluge of defensive shifts. Prudent and measured moves.
In center the Mets retain Lagares (and his upside), but ideally you want to actually get better, and you certainly want more than 1 WAR from center field. Six million dollars later, say hello to Alejandro De Aza and his not really better 1.2 2015 WAR and 104 wRC+. De Aza was a good candidate to outperform his price tag considering Met independent analyses viewed him as defensively underrated — a plausible victim of the muddled UZR integral inherent in WAR. He also put up 33.1 UZR/150 in 2011 so, he’s got some potential in his own right, but again, that word, potential. At his best De Aza is a .329 hitter with 150 wRC+, but he did that in 2011 through 171 total plate appearances with only 21 of them against lefties. He’s a platoon player, albeit good one … Lagares from the left side.
Still, Lagares represents the largest potential year-to-year bump (in value) of anyone on the Mets roster with the possible exception of David Wright. Juan is still the jewel, make no mistake. In addition to being 5 years younger than De Aza he has demonstrated 4 WAR upside, so it would be huge if he could find his form. But can the Mets afford more disappointments when they could be looking for secure avenues back to the post season? Should they meander on roads lined with underpriced vendibles when they’d be better off finding a shortcut, a bopper to put the fear of god in the opposition?
Cespedes was coming off a superstar-ish 6.7 WAR derived almost exclusively from some gaudy power numbers. He is exactly what the Mets lineup needs, but over a 5 to 7 year term, the presumption that he’d sustain his all-star production is dubious. He’d probably average out to barely 3 WAR a year, if that. Considering the extent to which Mets decision making is informed by value-based market fluctuations, you’d think signing Cespedes had a popsicle’s chance in a pizza oven.
And, like me, you’d be wrong.
Not because Cespedes didn’t want to be in NY, but because his signing went against everything the Mets front office was known for.
The Nationals were offering him $110 million over 5 years, but Peter Gammons reports that up to a third of it was deferred making that deal’s present day value $77 million. With the Mets paying him 27.5 million, Cespedes may clear anywhere from 8 and 10 million more as a Met in 2016, and that’s not pocket change folks … 10 million over 5 years is a very big bird in hand. There was also security of year 2 and 3 plus a player opt-out clause, giving Cespedes another shot at a mega-deal next winter when the pickings are slimmer.
The Mets on their end sign a player motivated to repeat his 6-ish 2015 WAR and are as close as they’ve been in a long stretch to playing moneyball with real money. They were faced with choosing between potential and established production and they went with the far more expensive choice — a clear break from recent tightwad tenets.
Perhaps some brilliant accounting wizard in the ticket office came up with the fantastical notion that you can make A LOT of money in NY if you routinely field a contender … What a concept, give that man a 2% raise! The only real concern in all this is Cespedes’ center field play. The hope is that Cespedes’ true defensive ability is somewhere between his decent overall UZR/150 of 14.5 in 2015 and his worrisome -14 in center field. Given that the one redeeming feature of his defense is his arm, which should translate to center, there is some validity in the notion that his defense in center isn’t quite -14 UZR/150 bad. By the way take a look at a top 10 in UZR/150, Cespedes comes in 3rd (number irony I guess) and is in some un-believable company.
The Mets made their offer “known” (saves on paper) and shifted back to their ponderous bargain hunting, when suddenly, BAM, shortcut. An advanced offensive asset circumvents their moneyballing as everyone in NY croons about how much these guys want to play for the Mets … And while there’s truth to that, lets not forget the big ring “and all that that implies” as Kent Mansley might say. Cespedes wants to win a championship, in New York, he wants to finish what he started. It’s a great narrative, perhaps even one for the ages if all the pieces fall into place.