Yoenis Cespedes and Next Year’s Poor Free-Agent Class

Yoenis Cespedes didn’t sign a bad contract, but he certainly signed a surprising one. With Chris Davis and Jason Heyward receiving more than $150 million, and Justin Upton in the picture with a $130 million, it would figure that Yoenis Cespedes might line up somewhere in that range. Perhaps not above Upton, but certainly above $100 million. Consider: the Cuban outfielder just produced a career year at age 29 which saw him record 35 home runs and nearly seven wins above replacement. Furthermore, wasn’t eligible for a qualifying offer, meaning a signing club wouldn’t have the burden of sacrificing a draft pick. The contract he did sign with the Mets pays him $75 million over three years, which seems like a small total guarantee relative to the rest of the free-agent class, but the opt-out and the opportunity to return to free agency next year does provide Cespedes with another opportunity to cash in.

If Cespedes decides to stick with his current contract, he’ll be a free agent entering his age-33 season after making $75 million dollars. While that is not the ideal scenario for him, if he is still playing well at that time, he might end up making close to the amount Justin Upton is to be paid over the next six years. If Cespedes plays poorly over the next three years, he will at least have his $75 million — not what he would have hoped, but also preferable to just a one-year pillow contract.

The best case scenario for Cespedes is another solid, even if not spectacular, year that allows him to opt out of his current contract after earning $27.5 million with the New York Mets this season. Due to an unusual clause in his first contract signed after coming over from Cuba, Cespedes was allowed to become a free agent this season despite only four years of service time. This would have prevented the Tigers from making a qualifying offer to Cespedes even if he was not traded mid-season. Although Cespedes will still be short of six years of service time to become a free agent, the Mets will be able make him a qualifying offer should Cespedes opt out of his new contract, per Ken Rosenthal.

In terms of production, Cespedes is unlikely to match his 2015 campaign, which means next season Cespedes will be one year older, coming off a worse year, and attached to a qualifying offer. That is not exactly a trifecta for Cespedes in the good news department. The variable likely to benefit Cespedes is the free-agent class next season. This year’s class is the best of at least the last decade. Determining Cespedes’ value is different depending on whether one looks at last year’s production or next year’s expected production. The chart below shows the best players in this year’s free-agent class with 2015 WAR and 2016 Steamer projections:

2016 Free-Agent Class
Age 2015 WAR 2016 Proj WAR
Yoenis Cespedes 29 6.7 2.7
David Price 29 6.4 4.9
Jason Heyward 25 6.0 4.9
Zack Greinke 31 5.9 4.2
Chris Davis 29 5.6 3.2
Johnny Cueto 29 4.1 3.1
Justin Upton 27 3.6 3.4
Jordan Zimmermann 29 3.0 2.4
Alex Gordon 31 2.8 3.7
Jeff Samardzija 30 2.7 2.7

Cespedes had the great 2015 season, but the projections have not completely bought in to his great year. Breaking it down to key position players available this winter, we see something similar when we look at numbers over the past three seasons.

2016 Free Agents: 2013-2015
Jason Heyward 117 14.7
Alex Gordon 115 13.4
Chris Davis 140 13.1
Yoenis Cespedes 116 12.4
Justin Upton 127 10.6

All the free agents who received $100 million contracts this season offered something that Cespedes didn’t. Davis comes with incredible power. Heyward brought youth and an unmatched all-around game. Upton brought more consistent offense as well as relative youth compared to Cespedes. As a result, those players proved to be more desirable. Next year’s class should provide less of an impediment.

This season, there were three outfielders with projections of at least 3.4 WAR for next year to go along with Chris Davis’ 3.2, and all players were 32 years old or younger. Add in medium-range options like Denard Span, Dexter Fowler, and Gerardo Parra and a trade market including Carlos Gonzalez, Jay Bruce, and Andre Ethier, and it’s easy to see how Cespedes might have been crowded out a bit. Next year, there are no position players under the age of 35 who project to exceed the 3.2 projected for Chris Davis.

For the position players, these are likely the most desirable players to hit the market next year.

Next Year’s Free-Agent Class
Age 2015 WAR 2016 Projection
Adrian Beltre 37 4.6 3.8
Jose Bautista 35 4.5 3.7
Carlos Gomez 30 2.6 3.2
Josh Reddick 29 3.0 2.9
Edwin Encarnacion 33 4.5 2.6
Matt Wieters 30 1.0 2.4
Justin Turner 31 4.0 2.4
Neil Walker 30 2.4 2.4
Mark Teixeira 36 2.9 1.7
Luis Valbuena 30 1.2 1.6
Erick Aybar 32 1.0 1.6
Adam Lind 32 2.2 1.3
Colby Rasmus 29 2.8 0.9
Mark Trumbo 30 1.1 0.8

The list above is fairly exhaustive. Brandon Moss, Michael Saunders, Mitch Moreland, and Jon Jay could have been included near the bottom as well, but this class is thin at the top and lacks depth throughout. Jose Bautista and Adrian Beltre will likely be desirable next season, but their ages will limit the contracts they receive. Instead of Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, it is Carlos Gomez and Josh Reddick, instead of a 30-year-old Chris Davis, it is a soon-to-be 34-year-old Edwin Encarnacion. After that the class evaporates with two players who accepted qualifying offers this season in Colby Rasmus and Matt Wieters as more desirable options this year.

Of course, the deep pitching this year might have affected the amount of money available to sign free agents. Both Zack Greinke and David Price topped $200 million, Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann beat $100 million, and four more received at least $70 million. Those eight players came less than $17 million from hitting $1 billion on the offseason. While average pitching gets paid in the free-agent market, there is still not a lot out there.

Next Year’s Free-Agent Class: Pitchers
Age 2015 WAR 2016 Projection
Stephen Strasburg 27 3.4 4.8
James Shields 34 1.1 3.0
Andrew Cashner 29 2.3 2.8
Clay Buchholz 31 3.2 2.7
Scott Kazmir 32 2.4 2.6
Brett Anderson 28 1.7 2.5
Jeremy Hellickson 29 0.8 1.7
CJ Wilson 35 1.4 1.7
Aroldis Chapman 28 2.5 1.4
Kenley Jansen 28 1.7 1.2
Jake Peavy 35 1.2 1.0
Ivan Nova 30 0.5 0.9
Jered Weaver 33 0.6 0.3
Jonathan Papelbon 35 0.4 0.3

Next year is a good year if you want to get a closer on the free-agent market, but if you want an a pitcher approaching an ace level, it is Stephen Strasburg or bust. James Shields would need to opt out of his contract. The same holds true for Scott Kazmir, who got $48 million in the current market. Brett Anderson accepted the qualifying offer this year. The top of next year’s class looks a lot more like the middle of this year’s, and the middle next year looks a lot like the lower-tier options from this offseason.

Whether Yoenis Cespedes can capitalize on next year’s class is still up to him as well as some luck. A productive, injury-free season that comes anywhere close to approaching this past season, and Cespedes can position himself as the best position player available when it comes to committing dollars long-term. When it came to looking at comps for Cespedes, there was a considerable boom-or-bust possibility with a value right around $100 million, but another productive year could eliminate a lot of doubts and improve his projections. In his ideal scenario, Cespedes probably would have signed a $100 million contract already, but his play will dictate whether he can improve on that number considerably against a much weaker free-agent class.

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards. His writing also appears regularly at VivaElBirdos.com where he is an Editor.

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4 months 3 days ago

This is super interesting. Thanks for the analysis, Craig. An interesting article would be to figure out what types of free agent classes some of this winter’s opt-outs coincide with.

4 months 3 days ago

Something else I heard listening to Casey Stearn on MLB radio, the teams that will be in on OF next offseason will drive up his market also, with the Yankees and Dodgers coming to mind off the top of my head.

4 months 3 days ago

Thank you. The NY media is making me sick, talking about how Cespedes is a hero for taking less money to sign with the Mets than the Nats.

Sure he took less overall, but look at the AAV? And on top of that, the contract is front-loaded, making it even more convenient for Cespedes to opt-out.

The Nats apparently offered $100M over 5 years, and some of that was deferred. We don’t know how much, so I’ll likely underestimate the the present-day value and say $95M over 5.

If Cespedes opts out, then he’d have to sign a 4 year/$67.5M deal to match what the Nats offered (and if he walks away from $47.5M over 2, it’s a certainty that he would exceed $67.5/4).

If he doesn’t, then he’d have to sign a 2 year/$20M deal after the 2018 offseason. Again, what are the chances of that? Pretty damn good, I’d say. Sure, he could fall apart after 2 seasons in New York. But what’s the over/under on what Cespedes would get on a 2-year deal starting in 2019? A lot higher than $20M, that’s for sure.

So Mets fans – you got Cespedes, and congratulations. But it’s not because he loves you – it’s because your offer blew away that of the Nationals and when he couldn’t get his $150/6 year deal, he took the next best thing.

4 months 3 days ago

You are completely right that the Mets deal was the better deal for him. The NPV between the 2 deals was likely pretty close with the longer deal including a great deal of deferred money and the shorter one being front loaded. 1 year vs 2 yr optout was huge at his age.

Fans and writers for some reason can’t figure out the time value of money is not constant.

Semih Sirin
Semih Sirin
3 months 28 days ago

Well the contract was 5/110. Even if deferred that’s still a solid bit more.

I agree that the contract was mutually beneficial, it wasn’t like Cespedes did something crazy, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love playing for this organization.

4 months 3 days ago

Also important will be the LT threshold which likely increases substantially with the new CBA after being held flat for several years. This gives large market teams more money to spend w/o going over the threshold, so teams like the Yankees and Angels could get back in the game. Beltran is also a FA next year although he likely retires.

Cespedes will cost a draft pick though, so he will have to have a monster season. A big year by Cespedes will remove some doubts about if last year was a fluke.

He has to be careful to to get suspended though. Players in his situation tend to be targets.