When Yoenis Cespedes suits up in April, he will very likely be playing for his fifth team in just over a 20-month period. His last 211 games have been split between four clubs. Some might try to use this as a reason to undervalue Cespedes in free agency and argue that three, perhaps four, teams have given up on him of late. Those arguments tend to miss the point, as the Oakland Athletics are prone to trade anyone, the Boston Red Sox desperately needed pitching last season while also possessing a surplus of outfielders, the Detroit Tigers fell out of the playoff race, and the New York Mets are merely prone to some unusual spending limits. The market for outfielders has been slow to develop, but with Jason Heyward off the board, we should begin to see Cespedes’ market gain some clarity.
Cespedes has certainly had an unusual couple of years, although his career as a whole has hardly been typical. Most recently with the Mets, Cespedes came to the United States from Cuba and signed a four year, $36 million contract with Oakland that would make him a free agent at the end of those four seasons. Cespedes hit well almost immediately, putting up a .292/.356/.505 line along with a 136 wRC+ in his first 540 plate appearances.
In the following two seasons, Cespedes could not reproduce the 8% walk rate of his initial season, his BABIP dropped a bit, and he settled in for two seasons of slightly above-average offense with above-average defense in left field, totaling 5.7 WAR over two seasons — with the A’s for a year and a half and then half a season with the Red Sox. Last season was Cespedes’ best season since 2012: he hit .291/.328/.542 for a 135 wRC+ that included 17 home runs in just 51 games following his trade from the Tigers to the Mets. That production led, in no small way, to the Mets’ appearance in the postseason.
In trying to determine what Cespedes will look like over the next five to seven years of a new contract, finding comps using career numbers is unlikely to yield great results. Based on how Cespedes performed at age 26 with the A’s, he was clearly ready for major league baseball. Due to the constraints of Cuba’s emigration laws, however, he was denied the opportunity to play against the game’s best players. As a result, his career numbers are unique. Focusing specifically on the most recent three years, however, we can find some interesting comparable players.
Starting from 1960, I looked at outfielders during their age-27 through age-29 seasons who produced between 8.4 and 16.4 WAR with wRC+ figures between 106 and 126. Cespedes is an impatient hitter, so I further narrowed the group by limiting it to players who recorded a walk rate under 8% during those years. Cespedes had his best year in 2015 at age 29 and has always hit for power, so I eliminated any player who failed to produce at least three wins above replacement or a .150 ISO in their age-29 season. The search yielded the following players.
|Sammy Sosa||1957||142||7.8 %||0.286||126||65.1||27.1||15.1|
|Al Oliver||1808||41||4.6 %||0.161||126||56||-1.5||12.1|
|Derek Bell||1926||54||6.8 %||0.165||111||31.6||22.6||11.3|
|Brian Jordan||1282||44||5.2 %||0.178||113||23.6||44.4||10.8|
|Jose Guillen||1767||82||5.2 %||0.217||124||50.1||-8.3||10.0|
|Mike Devereaux||1781||55||6.7 %||0.174||107||10.5||26.7||9.8|
|Larry Herndon||1708||48||6.1 %||0.170||121||41.3||-3.3||9.7|
|Kevin McReynolds||1838||78||6.7 %||0.202||126||60.3||-28.6||9.6|
|Jim Rice||1675||65||7.1 %||0.185||124||47||-17.2||8.8|
|Gary Ward||1618||50||6.7 %||0.175||109||21.9||11.3||8.7|
|Yoenis Cespedes||1895||83||5.5 %||0.216||116||43.3||10.9||12.4|
Cespedes fits in pretty well here. He walks slightly less, hits for a bit more power, but overall, his hitting line comes up pretty close. He comes out a bit ahead on WAR, although per 600 plate appearances, the difference is not that great at 3.9 for Cespedes and 3.6 for the rest of the group.
In looking at the immediate payoff on signing Cespedes, I took the the first three years of each players’ 30s. This should yield the highest value years on a contract, as the aging process has not completely diminished the players. This is what the above group looks like for those seasons.
If we assume that the 3.5 WAR average from 27 to 29 was the talent level at 29, the group as a whole follows a pretty regular decline (3.0, 2.5, 2.0) to reach 7.5 WAR as an average. We can discern three tiers over the first three years of the their 30s. Starting from the bottom, we have four busts, with no player replicating the previous annual average over the course of three seasons. Then we have a middle group of five (or four, if you want to sub-tier McReynolds), who more or less repeated the previous three seasons. Presumably any team would be happy to have those results. Then we have Sammy Sosa, who was in the middle of his monster home-run seasons. The group’ offensive and defensive numbers dropped a bit, but not alarmingly.
Moving forward past the first three seasons, we can estimate what kind of contract these players might be worth over seven seasons. Here are the players’ numbers from their age-30 through their age-36 seasons.
That Jose Guillen comp has to be a scary one for teams thinking about investing heavily in Cespedes, given the similarity of Guillen’s offensive numbers as well as the reliance defensively on a strong arm. There are positives above. Any team would be absolutely thrilled to sign any of the top four players to a $100 million contract: all four of them would produce worth in excess of $150 million assuming $8 million per win and 5% inflation. Every other player would be a disappointment, though. The average comes out to 11 WAR, which would be worth right around $100 million, but there is a boom or bust element present here, as one finds a 10 WAR gap between the fourth- and fifth-ranked players on that list.
We can use Steamer projections to evaluate Cespedes and apply standard aging curves, but we come up with a very similar result.
|2016||30||3.1||$8.0 M||$24.8 M|
|2017||31||2.6||$8.4 M||$21.8 M|
|2018||32||2.1||$8.8 M||$18.5 M|
|2019||33||1.6||$9.3 M||$14.8 M|
|2020||34||1.1||$9.7 M||$10.7 M|
|2021||35||0.6||$10.2 M||$6.1 M|
|2022||36||0.1||$10.7 M||$1.1 M|
While we do not know exactly how Cespedes’ market is going to shape up, it seems unlikely that Cespedes will sign for that price. The FanGraphs crowd came up with six years and $128 million while Dave Cameron guessed seven years and $150 million to the Texas Rangers. Any team betting on Cespedes is hoping that his 2015 form is more representative of to his present true talent than his career numbers are. He does not have to be a six-win player again to be worth a big contract. Starting him in the contract table as a four-win player with a normal decline gets him above $150 million.
Cespedes has been an up-and-down player during his brief career, so it should not come as a surprise that he has considerable boom or bust potential as a free agent. If he can maintain his form for just a season or two more, he is likely to justify his contract. If his lack of walks persist and his power drops a bit, a team could regret this signing almost from the get-go. The talent is there, and the production has been fantastic, making him one of the more intriguing free agents available.
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