When the 2016 Major League Baseball season opens up, Yoenis Cespedes will be playing for his fifth team in three years. Since 2014, he has been traded from the Oakland Athletics to the Boston Red Sox, from the Red Sox to the Detroit Tigers, and from the Tigers to the New York Mets, before being low-balled in free agency by the Mets. Teams see value in Cespedes, but no one wants to commit to him.
News of the breakdown of talks between Cespedes and the Mets is upsetting to many Mets fans who saw him as not only the answer to the need for a power hitter in the Amazin's lineup, but also as the catalyst that sparked the magical second-half surge and run to the World Series.
While Cespedes was indeed a huge factor in the Mets winning the National League pennant, the healthy returns of David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud, the debut of Michael Conforto, and the tear-fueled hot streak of Wilmer Flores were equally important to the Mets' success. But it was Cespedes and his canary-colored sleeves who provided a flair and panache that made him the deserving narrative focal point. He hit .287/.337/.604 with 17 home runs and was worth 2.7 fWAR in 57 games with the Mets after coming over from the Tigers.
With his entrance into free agency, fans reserved hope of re-signing the Cuban slugger to anchor an outfield consisting of Conforto and Curtis Granderson, creating a formidable trio. Sacrificing defense in center field in exchange for the big bat is not necessarily a bad move when there is a deep and talented pitching staff.
Since Cespedes burst onto the scene with the Athletics in 2012, he has been the 11th most valuable outfielder in baseball, according to fWAR. His .215 ISO is top-25, and the 106 home runs that he has clubbed slots him 14th in baseball — comfortably between Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks and former A's teammate Josh Donaldson. His throwing arm is rated as the best in baseball over the past four years.
The energy with which he plays the game displays baseball in its purest form — fun and entertainment with a healthy dose of competition — and makes him a fan favorite. He has never been embroiled in any controversies with his teammates or the law. Yet he stands unable to get the same job security afforded to lesser players. If a mitigating factor holding him back exists, Cespedes has done a wonderful job of masking it.
In the case of the Mets, the odds of re-signing Cespedes this offseason have ranged from "unlikely" to "highly unlikely". The bleak reality of Mets owner Fred Wilpon's financial situation made the two sides incompatible. Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported that the Mets were willing to offer only a two- or three-year deal to Cespedes, while Cespedes is looking for one in the five- to six-year range.
The Mets were stingy in their offer to Cespedes because in five years they likely won't have the money to pay him. Howard Megdal went into detail on the Mets' financial liabilities last week, but here's a quick rundown: The Wilpons have to endure $30 million payments in 2016 and 2017 as part of their settlement for their involvement in the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme. They've refinanced their massive debt (they borrowed $880 million in 2009 and 2010 alone) in each of the past two years and kicked the can down the road to 2019 for repayment.
In 2012, the Wilpons sold 12 minority shares of the Mets for $20 million each, and there is an option on the shares where they can be sold back to the Mets starting in 2018 for the original cost plus three percent annual interest. That's another possible $287 million liability coming due in three years. When one factors in arbitration raises and perhaps an expensive extension(s) for Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, Jeurys Familia, and d'Arnaud, there is no way short of a winning Mega Millions ticket that the Mets can afford to pay Cespedes in five years.
Somebody will pay Cespedes a handsome fee, though, and will be better for it. According to FanGraphs' calculations, Cespedes was worth $53.9 million in 2015 alone. His Steamer projection has him being worth approximately $24.9 million in 2016, but 3.1 fWAR seems like it is a conservative projection considering his seven-win upside. Yet he sits on the sidelines watching others snatch up huge deals.
That's what makes Cespedes' free agency so fascinating: Here's arguably the best position player still available and he isn't asking for a 10-year mega-deal, yet there doesn't seem to be a team that is seriously courting his services. MLB Trade Rumors speculates that the Orioles, Angels, Tigers, Royals, Giants, and White Sox are all linked to Cespedes, but none of the half-dozen is aggressively pursuing him at this point.
He's not a player without his flaws — we saw him play a fly out into an inside-the-park home run during the World Series — but that such a prolific power bat could be without a firm offer as we approach the new year is perplexing. Cespedes was seventh in fWAR (6.7) and 11th in rWAR (6.3) among all hitters in 2015. He was also 12th in ISO (.251) and 22nd in wOBA (.367). From a business standpoint, Cespedes is the kind of flashy player that puts butts in seats and keeps eyes glued to the TV.
Maybe there is some strategy on the side of Cespedes and his agents at Roc Nation. Perhaps they are taking their time to wait the market out until Cespedes is the last prize available to increase leverage against several competing teams without alternatives. But that's a dangerous game to play.
So what can we make of his situation? Cespedes is a very talented player seeking a five- or six-year deal. A half-dozen teams are considering him, but nobody is willing to commit to him yet. With the Mets now out of the running, a market should begin to take shape soon. Maybe. Whichever team wants to commit to Cespedes will get a damn good ballplayer.
Read more of Howard Megdal if you want to stay on top of the Wilpon's finance situation.
Joe Vasile is the Assistant General Manager and Voice of the Fayetteville SwampDogs of the Coastal Plain League and a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeVasilePBP.