A year ago today, the Mets sent shock waves across the baseball world, acquiring star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes for pitching prospect Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa just ten minutes before the trade deadline.
At the time of the trade, Cespedes was in the midst of a career season with the Detroit Tigers, hitting for average (.293), power (18 home runs), and clutch (.312 with RISP, 61 RBI); all while playing gold glove quality defense in left field.
Meanwhile, in Double-A Binghamton, Michael Fulmer was legitimizing himself as a top pitching prospect, dominating Eastern League hitters to the tune of a 1.88 ERA and .227 batting average against.
On paper, the trade seemed fair, All-Star outfielder for a can’t miss pitching prospect. Yoenis Cespedes would fill the Mets’ gaping need for an impact power bat while Fulmer, perceived as a budding front line starter, would add depth to a desperately thin Tigers rotation.
Throughout their 54 year history, the Mets have been notoriously bamboozled in trades. In front offices over the years, toxic combinations of hubris, poor foresight, and even flat out stupidity have lead to trades such as Amos Otis for Joe Foy, Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi, to even the relatively recent swap of Angel Pagan for Ramon Ramirez and Andres Torres.
But the Yoenis Cespedes–Michael Fulmer trade appears different. It’s a rare case where, at least in the short term, both sides have benefited immensely. Still, a year removed from the trade, we should start thinking back, who won that fateful deadline deal?
Since his acquisition, Yoenis Cespedes has arguably single-handedly carried the Mets’ offense, blasting 39 home runs, driving in 102 runs while posting a 6.3 WAR mark in 149 games. He currently leads the team in every major offensive category across the board. And not to be overlooked, Cespedes has batted a respectable .284 with runners in scoring position, a lone bright spot amid the Mets’ team wide struggles in the situation this season.
As Mets fans know, Cespedes’ success dates back to 2015, when he electrified the Mets lineup upon his arrival in Flushing. Over 57 games, La Potencia became one of the best outfielders in the league, beating up on National League pitching with a .287/.337/.604 slash line in addition to 17 home runs. Further proving his value, Cespedes finished third on the team with a worth of 2.3 wins above replacement, despite playing less than half a season with the team.
After playing with an anemic offense for the entire first half, the Mets went 36 and 21 over the final two months of the season with Cespedes in the lineup. They stormed their way to a division crown before routing the Dodgers and Cubs in the playoffs en route to the National League title. While the season ultimately ended in a heartbreaking World Series loss, it is no stretch to say that the entire magical run would have been impossible without the presence of Yoenis Cespedes.
On the opposite side of the trade, Michael Fulmer has been a revelation for the Tigers this season. In his rookie campaign, the right-hander has gone 9-2 with an impressive 2.50 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. He’s shown an ability to pitch in the game’s best company, proven by his 3.7 WAR, a mark good for ninth among American League pitchers. At this point, those gaudy numbers place him at the well deserved forefront of the AL Rookie of the Year discussion.
Over the course of this season, Fulmer has been a beacon of stability in a Tigers rotation that has gone an extended period of time without ace Jordan Zimmermann. And it’s worth pointing out that at 57 and 48, the Tigers sit just half a game out of a wild card spot, much because of the consistent performance Fulmer turns in every fifth day.
It would be unfair to decide the winner of the Mets-Tigers trade based on statistics alone. Considering the disparities in major league service time and postseason experience between Cespedes and Fulmer, it’s only natural that Cespedes will have better comparative stats and a longer track record of sustained success. Each player’s potential and future development must be acknowledged when analyzing the trade.
Cespedes is a known commodity, a star outfielder with power and a cannon-like arm. We know his upside and it’s unlikely he’s going to get any better. Furthermore, he’s also on the wrong side of 30 and likely looking for a mega deal to carry him through the remainder of his baseball career.
At the other end of the spectrum, Fulmer is more of an unknown. He’s under team control for several more years at a minimal cost. More importantly, he has the makeup, the repertoire, and the mound presence to become an ace for years to come, but there still simply isn’t enough of a sample size to declare what kind of pitcher he is at this point in his career.
Although he’s dominating AL hitters now, it’s possible that the league figures him out and he goes through an extended rough patch. But at the same time, Fulmer hasn’t even touched the front end of his prime, and it could be scary to imagine how much better he can get with a few years of experience under his belt.
With that said, the jury is still out on who wins the trade in the long term. So many factors continue to play prominent roles.
Does Cespedes re-sign in the offseason and carry a rejuvenated Mets squad to 2017 World Series glory? Perhaps. But it’s just as likely that he leaves for greener pastures after a bitter 2016 marred by bad managing and a team wide failure to hit with runners in scoring position.
Could Michael Fulmer become a perennial All Star who anchors the Tigers rotation for years to come? Maybe. But remember, we’re talking about the same pitcher who had three elbow surgeries over two seasons in the minor leagues. What evidence proves that Fulmer is no longer such an injury risk?
Ultimately, when making a decision today, past results carry more weight than possible future outcomes. Postseason success is the ultimate trump card, and Yoenis Cespedes contributed immeasurably to the Mets’ run in 2015. Without the right personnel, no team can succeed when it counts. In the case of the Mets, without Yoenis Cespedes, it is completely valid to think that they would have failed to make the World Series, and possibly even the playoffs.
But time will tell who the real winner of the trade is. As Fulmer gains experience and builds his reputation around the league, Yoenis Cespedes will be on the back nine of his career. Whether he plays for the Mets or any other team, it is unlikely he will maintain his high level of production into his mid thirties.
And given Fulmer’s star potential and developing track record, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if or when the scales tip in favor of the Detroit Tigers.