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.