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Mets face big expectations after bringing back Yoenis Cespedes

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On the heels of a surprise World Series appearance, the biggest fear among Mets fans was that the team was going to squander their window to win with their brilliant, young, cost-controlled starting rotation. Rather than shop at the top of the free agent market this winter for a player like Jason Heyward, the Mets made more under-the-radar moves by acquiring Neil Walker, Asdrubal Cabrera, Alejandro De Aza, and Antonio Bastardo while bringing back Bartolo Colon and Jerry Blevins. This brought all the usual questions about the Wilpons’ finances and if they were using the money earned from the team’s postseason run to pay down debts.

Things got ugly with the fanbase this week, especially with increased chatter that Yoenis Cespedes was negotiating with the Nationals. It took a perfect storm of factors and some patience on the part of Mets GM Sandy Alderson and company, but we got our answer late Friday night, as the club has reportedly brought back Cespedes on a three-year, $75 million contract.

With one bold move, the Mets now find themselves as the presumed favorites in the National League East. Cespedes is admittedly a bit of an imperfect fit in the outfield, which was no doubt one of the reasons why the Mets were reluctant to give him a long-term deal. He’ll now be asked to play center field on most days, though it’s possible the Mets will use the same arrangement they did down the stretch last year, with Cespedes in left field against left-handed starters and Juan Lagares in center with young Michael Conforto on the bench.

Defensive issues aside, there’s no question that the lineup looks a lot better than it did yesterday. Remember, the Mets’ led the National League in runs after acquiring Cespedes last season. They have at least held serve after swapping Daniel Murphy out for Walker and could have an upgrade with Cabrera over the combination of Wilmer Flores and Ruben Tejada at shortstop. This lineup without Cespedes was always a bit of a gamble, as they were counting David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud to stay healthy while putting a lot on the shoulders of Conforto for his first full season in the majors. Those questions are still present, but retaining Cespedes is quite the hedge against those situations. Sure, he’s probably not going to be the player he was during his insane six-week stretch from August through mid-September last season, but he’s a proven middle-of-the-order bat.

This was also a balance of power-type move, as we’d likely be talking about the Nationals as favorites if Cespedes had landed in D.C. They gave it their best shot, reportedly offering a contract in the range of five years and $100 million with a bunch of deferred money. Their pursuit scared the pants off many Mets fans, but it served an important purpose in the end, no doubt motivating New York’s front-office to get a deal done. As for the Nationals, they have now lost out on all of their major targets this winter, a list which also included Heyward and Ben Zobrist. They can’t be underestimated with the talent that they have, but watching Cespedes return to their division rival stings.

Cespedes is leaving money on the table here in theory, but he’s still getting paid quite well. If he opts out of the deal after one year, his $27.5 million salary will be the second-highest AAV (average annual value) ever for a position player. Miguel Cabrera ($31 million) holds the record in his current deal with the Tigers. Cespedes will also have the chance to cash in again as part of a weak free agent class next winter. However, there’s no question that the accepted perception will be that he turned down more money to stay. Massive ovations from the Citi Field crowd are in his future.

The Mets’ dramatic turnaround last season sneaked up on a lot of people, probably even themselves. But that’s not their identity anymore. With Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz leading the way in their rotation, this team is built to win right now. How they’ll perform with this new identity of “favorite” will be interesting to watch. While we’re on the topic of new identities, you have to give ownership credit for going all in for 2016. After a handful of years of a payroll wildly out of line with the major market they play in, the Mets project to have a payroll around $140 million this season. It’s a new world in Queens.

Don’t let Rob Manfred pass the buck

Rob Manfred
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Yesterday morning, in Ken Rosenthal’s article, Rob Manfred made it pretty clear what his aim is at the moment: throw blame on the union for the sign stealing scandal getting to the place it is. It was clear in both his words and Rosenthal’s words, actually:

In fairness, Manfred was not alone in failing to see the future clearly. As far back as 2015, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) expressed concerns to MLB about the rise of technology in the sport. The union, however, did not directly focus on the threat to the game’s integrity.

Then, in his press conference yesterday, he went farther, saying that the union refused to allow a situation in which punishment might happen, going so far as to claim that the union refused to make Astros players available for interviews without blanket immunity.

The union, both in its official statement last night and in Tony Clark’s words to Yahoo’s Hannah Keyser earlier this afternoon, is basically saying Manfred is full of it:

“We were approached with respect to their intentions to not discipline players. Our legal role and responsibility is inherent in accepting that consideration, which is what we did.”

Which is to say, it was Rob Manfred, and not the union, which started from the presumption that there was immunity for Astros players. Manfred is the one who settled on that at the outset, and he’s now trying to make it look like the union was the side that insisted on it so that people who are mad will get mad at Tony Clark for defending the indefensible as opposed to getting mad at him for creating a situation in which there was no legal way to punish Astros players.

And, as we have noted many times already, he did create that situation.

It’s undisputed that Manfred never attempted to make rules or set forth discipline for players stealing signs. Indeed, he did the opposite of that, saying over two years ago that GMs and managers, not players, would be held responsible. If he wanted to discipline players now, he’d have a big problem because he specifically excluded them from discipline then. I’d argue it was a mistake for him to do that — he should’ve said, three years ago, that everyone’s butt would be on the line if the cheating continued — but he didn’t.

Some people I’ve spoken to are taking the position that the union is still to blame here. I’m sort of at a loss as to how that could be.

It is the union’s job to protect its members from arbitrary punishment by management. It is not the union’s job to say “hey, I know our workers were off the hook here based on the specific thing you said, but maybe we should give them some retroactive punishment anyway?” If someone in charge of a union proposed that, they’d be in dereliction of their duties and could be fired and/or sued. Probably should be, actually. A lot of people might be mad about that, and I know fully well that unions aren’t popular. But then again, neither are criminal defense attorneys, and they don’t go up to prosecutors and say “well, there isn’t a law against what my client did — in fact, the governor issued an order a couple of years ago saying that what he did wasn’t prohibited — but we’re all kind of mad about it, so why don’t we work together to find a way to put him in jail, eh?” It’d be insane.

That doesn’t make anyone feel better now. The players are certainly mad, with new ones every day finding a camera to yell at over all of this. I get it. What has happened is upsetting. It’s a situation in which some members of the union are at odds with other members. It’s not an easy situation to navigate.

They should take that anger, however, and channel it into telling their leader, Tony Clark, that they don’t want this to happen again. That, to the extent Rob Manfred now, belatedly, proposes new rules and new punishments for sign-stealing or other things, he should get on board with that. They should also — after the yelling dies down — maybe think a little bit about how, if the facts were slightly different here, they would never argue that Rob Manfred should have the power to impose retroactive or other non-previously-negotiated punishment on players.

Either way, neither they nor any of the rest of us should take Manfred’s bait and try to claim that what’s happening now is the union’s fault. If, for no other reason, than because he doesn’t have much credibility when it comes to this whole scandal. Remember, he’s the guy who issued a report saying that, except for Alex Cora, it was only players involved despite knowing at the time he said it that the front office had hatched the scheme in the first place. Which, by the way, similarly sought to make the players out to be the only ones to blame while protecting people on management’s side. He’s not someone who can be trusted in any of this, frankly.

At the end of the day, this was a scheme perpetrated by both front office and uniformed personnel of the Houston Astros. To the extent nothing more can be done about that than already has been done, blame it on Rob Manfred’s failure of leadership. Not on the MLB Players Association.