Yoenis Cespedes will return to the Mets, and from the team’s side of things, there’s almost nothing not to like about the arrangement. Even in the worst-case scenario where Cespedes just ends up a dead $75 million, he’s off the books before the starting pitchers hit free agency. And far more likely is that Cespedes opts out in a year, making him sort of an extended rental, without the long-term concern. Mets fans get to see their team spend, and they get to embrace a dynamic outfielder without bearing witness to a frustrating decline. If Cespedes opts out, the Mets can collect a draft pick. He’s better than what the Mets were going to go with, and Juan Lagares is still around to help, even if this means Alejandro De Aza has to disappear. The Mets’ chances of winning everything just got better.
It’s cause for celebration. Cespedes even turned down a bigger guarantee to go back to New York, because he likes it there, and this money might not otherwise have gone back into the team. Of course, Cespedes is unlikely to repeat his 2015. He blew past his career numbers, and with the Mets, he got to feast against some light stretch-run competition. People are aware that Cespedes struggled in the playoffs, and people are aware of his barely-.300 OBP. His game is power, and power’s inconsistent. But Cespedes has yet to be anything but an above-average player. The Mets know what they have in Cespedes as a hitter. What they don’t know, as much, is what they have in Cespedes as a defender. It’s probably the biggest question about his 2016.
Cespedes has mostly played left field. Now he’ll regularly be slotted in between Michael Conforto (who’s fine) and Curtis Granderson (who’s fine). He has a limited history of playing center field in the major leagues, and his time playing center in Cuba is probably of little relevance. It’s easy to see there’s some risk here, although two things help: the Mets’ strikeout-happy pitching staff, and the presence of Lagares on the bench for certain later innings. To some extent, the Mets are already protected.
How might Cespedes do as a center fielder? The first thing you might do is look at the numbers. In his career as a left fielder, he has a UZR/150 of +14. In his career as a center fielder, he has a UZR/150 of -18. DRS paints the same picture. So based on the first glimpse, this looks like it could be bad, and Cespedes does have more than 900 innings of center-field experience, which isn’t nothing.
That’s not where you should stop, though. That wouldn’t be at all fair. At the very least, you should weight Cespedes’ left-field numbers by his center-field playing time, for a more appropriate comparison. After all, he hasn’t split time evenly all four years. Do that and Cespedes’ weighted career UZR/150 in left field is +5. That takes a substantial chunk out of the difference.
Still, there’s so much more you can do. Like introduce some regression, given Cespedes’ limited center-field sample. Shin-soo Choo, in his full year in center field with the Reds, posted a UZR/150 of -17. (That team also won 90 games.) Cespedes should probably be a better center fielder than Choo was. There’s also now the matter of Cespedes having time to prepare for this assignment. Last year, he moved over to center field on the fly. The year before, he played only very occasional center field. The year before, it was the same thing. And while Cespedes started as a center fielder as a rookie, at that point he was adjusting to literally everything in the US. And he didn’t play so much center field after May. He just hasn’t had that much of a chance.
For more information, we have a few routes. As an example, since 2002, we have 16 cases of a player getting regular time in center field a season after getting regular time in left or right field. These are players who made adjustments similar to Cespedes, and in the first year, as corner outfielders, they averaged a UZR/150 of +8.2. In the second year, as center fielders, they averaged a UZR/150 of -0.7. They declined as a group, of course, because center field is a tough position, but this basically agrees with our normal positional adjustment of 10 runs between the spots. Based on this, the expectation should be that Cespedes will be okay. Neither great nor terrible.
There’s another possible approach, making some use of the Fan Scouting Report. I know this is a little more “experimental” since fans aren’t always experts, but what we have are fan evaluations of Cespedes’ tools in left field, and we also have fan evaluations of other individual tools in center field. I put all the center fielders together and ran some math to figure out which players were evaluated to be most similar to Cespedes last year. Two stood out as the closest comparisons: Marcell Ozuna and Leonys Martin. Ozuna finished with a UZR/150 of -3, with his arm making up for his range. Meanwhile, Martin finished with a UZR/150 of +15, although he did finish short of 700 innings. The interesting thing about Martin is this: for his career in center, he’s got +29 arm runs, and -2 range runs. For his career in left, Cespedes has +27 arm runs, and +8 range runs. Martin’s arm is what’s made him an elite center fielder. Cespedes’ arm hasn’t yet translated to his time in center, but there’s no reason to think it shouldn’t, and that’ll make up for some balls that drop in. The range, the routes — Cespedes isn’t going to look like Kevin Pillar. But his arm should compensate for some of that. It’s very clearly one of his strengths.
I don’t think Cespedes has a chance of finishing at +15, mind you. Something like Ozuna seems more likely, and something like Ozuna would be just fine, because the Mets know Cespedes will hit enough, and his defense shouldn’t be a killer. Despite his physical gifts, he’s not a graceful defender, and sometimes that’ll be exposed when he’s playing in the middle. Hits will drop in, and a few will probably clang off his glove. Yet because of the arm, Cespedes will hold his share of runners, and he should also throw a few out. He should have the arm that Lagares, last year, had taken away from him. So I don’t quite think we’re looking at another Choo. And, one more time, that Choo team won 90 games anyway. That’s what the Mets’ll be shooting for.
If, for whatever reason, the arm just doesn’t carry over to center, that’ll be a thing. Lagares is still around, however, and that’s helpful. And Cespedes is going to have time to work on his routes and to work on his reads, and this is an opportunity he hasn’t really had. This spring will be nothing like spring 2012, so he ought to look more polished. He’s never going to look that polished, defensively. But the power arm makes up for defensive shortcomings, just as the power bat makes up for offensive shortcomings. Yoenis Cespedes is a hell of a powerful player.
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