As the Coronavirus Halts Teams, Cain, Céspedes, and Others Opt Out

As the 2020 baseball season seemed to teeter on the brink of collapse this weekend in light of the news of an outbreak on the Cardinals, the comments of commissioner Rob Manfred, and the inactivity of six teams, four players — three of them former All-Stars — opted out of the 2020 season: Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain, Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, Marlins second baseman Isan Díaz, and free agent lefty Francisco Liriano. Nokyne of them are known to be in high-risk groups themselves, meaning that they’ll forfeit the remainder of their salaries. The departure of Cain is likely the most impactful from a competitive standpoint, and that of Díaz the most understandable given his proximity to the largest outbreak to date. All of those were overshadowed by the drama surrounding Céspedes and the Mets, who together turned the announcement of an opt-out decision into a bizarre spectacle that unfolded over the course of a few hours on Sunday afternoon.

We’ll get to Céspedes, but first is Cain. Although he had played just five games this season, the 34-year-old two-time All-Star was off to a promising start, going 6-for-18 with a double and three walks. A speedy, savvy baserunner, he pulled off an entertaining escape from a rundown against the Cubs on July 25, a clip that made the rounds:


Five games isn’t enough time to judge a player definitively, but by all accounts, Cain appeared to be free of the nagging ankle, knee, and thumb injuries that dogged him last year as he hit a disappointing .260/.325/.372, albeit with 11 homers and 18 steals; his 83 wRC+ was his lowest mark since 2013, his first full season in the majors. For as subpar as his bat was, however, he still sparkled in the field, ranking second among center fielders in DRS (22) and fourth in UZR (7.0). The latter boosted his WAR to 1.5, still his lowest mark since 2012, and well off his 5.7 WAR from 2018, his first season under a five-year, $80 million free agent deal.

Even so, he won his first Gold Glove, an award that had previously eluded him despite outstanding defensive metrics. His five home run robberies — tied for the highest single-season total since 2004 — no doubt played a part in that. Dating back to his time with the Royals, he has shown a knack for the spectacular, to say the least:

It’s a bummer we won’t get to see Cain make grabs like that this year. He explained his decision in a statement released by the team on Saturday:

“After careful consideration and discussion with my family, I have decided to opt out of the 2020 season. With all of the uncertainty and unknowns surrounding our game at this time, I feel this is the best decision for me, my wife and our three kids.

“The Brewers organization was very understanding and supportive of my decision, and I thank them for that. I wish all of my great teammates the best of luck this season and look forward to getting back on the field in 2021. Please stay safe.”

According general manager David Stearns, Cain shared his decision with the team on Friday night, but it had been in the works even before the team’s series with the Cardinals was postponed. Via The Athletic’s Will Sammon:

“We completely respect the decision and support the decision,” Stearns later said. “This is something that Lorenzo had been thinking about and discussing with his family for some time. This is the first (time) he had brought it to our attention, but as we understood the decision and understood the decision-making process, it’s something that’s been on his mind, and ultimately he believes this is the right thing for him to do and we understand that.”

Understandably, the outbreak among the Marlins weighed heavily on Brewers players even before their weekend series with the Cardinals was postponed. Via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Tom Haudricourt, Ryan Braun said last week, “There’s real fear, there’s real anxiety for me, for all my teammates. We’ve found it very difficult to focus on baseball at all over the last couple of days. I know, for me personally, I don’t feel comfortable with where we’re at.”

Even coming off his down year, Cain ranked 10th in the center field edition of our preseason Positional Power Rankings, with a projection for 0.9 WAR; only at left field, second base, and the bullpen did the Brewers rank higher. His loss is a big one for the club. Ben Gamel, their 28-year-old fourth outfielder, is the likely replacement, but he’s coming off a mediocre season at the plate (.248/.337/.373, 87 wRC+ in 356 PA). He hits the ball on the ground a lot, and he has the speed to leg out the occasional hit but strikes too often (29.2% in 2019) for a player lacking in power; last year’s .349 xSG placed him in the majors’ sixth percentile. In 181 major league innings in center field, he’s been about average, which for the Brewers chalks up as a loss on that side of the ball as well.

The Marlins’ outbreak clearly weighed heavily on Díaz as well. The 24-year-old second baseman is among the youngest and least-established players of the 19 who have opted out thus far, having played just 51 major league games and accumulated 56 days of service time. Acquired from the Brewers in the January 2018 Christian Yelich trade, the former second-round pick and Top 100 prospect struggled mightily in his first taste of major league action last year, hitting .173/.259/.307. But Díaz had just taken over the Marlins’ starting second base job from the departed Starlin Castro, and he is viewed as a key piece of their future, “a possible three true outcomes second baseman who slugs 25 homers,” according to Eric Longenhagen.

Díaz was reportedly not among the 18 Marlins players who tested positive for COVID-19, but being surrounded by so many positives made an impression upon him. Here’s what he posted on Instagram:

He’s the first Marlin to opt out thus far. His departure leaves Jonathan Villar as the likely second baseman — if, that is, Villar is healthy; a number of the players who have tested positive have yet to be identified publicly. The team is currently scheduled to resume play on Tuesday against the Orioles in Baltimore in a four-game series that will include a doubleheader as well as as two games in which the Marlins serve as the home team.

As for Liriano, the 36-year-old southpaw signed a minor league deal with the Phillies in January and was part of their 60-man pool at the beginning of July, though he reportedly left the team for a couple of days during the first week of summer camp while evaluating whether to play. After spending all of 2019 pitching exclusively in relief with the Pirates — for whom he posted a 3.47 ERA and 4.53 FIP in 70 innings en route to 0.3 WAR — he was vying for a similar role with the Phillies, though the new three-batter minimum might have presented a challenge given his platoon splits. With an opt-out to his minor league deal looming, he was released on July 18. According to MLB insider Robert Murray, he received “multiple guaranteed offers” before deciding not to play.

As for Céspedes, his decision to opt out is also family-related — his mother, who is in the U.S., is ill, according to The Athletic’s Tim Britton and Marc Carig — and no less valid than that of any other player. While general manager Brodie Van Wagenen ultimately expressed his support of the decision, the manner in which Sunday’s saga played out exemplified a pathology that seemingly turns every minor Mets controversy into tabloid fodder.

About 15 minutes after Sunday’s game with the Braves began, Van Wagenen — who as Céspedes’ agent negotiated the four-year, $110 million contract he signed with the team in November 2016, as well as the three-year, $75 million deal he had opted out of before that — released a statement to the media: “As of game time, Yoenis Céspedes has not reported to the ballpark today. He did not reach out to management with any explanation for his absence. Our attempts to contact him have been unsuccessful.”

While jokes abounded on Twitter thanks to memories of Matt Harvey’s 2017 nightlife-related no-show, the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic and the specter of the sudden deaths of Tyler Skaggs and Darryl Kile made it no laughing matter. Less than an hour later, the team reported that it “has no reason to believe Yoenis Céspedes’ safety is at risk,” which came as both a relief and an indictment of the Mets’ handling of the situation. At a time when media access is restricted, Céspedes’ pregame absence could have easily flown beneath the radar, and in that context, the initial announcement that he was AWOL was read as an attempt at the type of public shaming that has become commonplace during the Wilpons’ ownership of the team. Only after the Mets finished losing their fifth straight game did the news of Céspedes’ opt-out finally break, and both Van Wagenen and manager Luis Rojas expressed surprise.

So very Mets.

Via Britton and Carig, Céspedes said goodbye to a few teammates and informed them of his decision after Saturday night’s loss, but he neglected to inform the team brass, leaving his agent at Roc Nation to do so, though clearly not in a timely fashion. The communication gap between player and team was reminiscent of the point in the summer of 2018 when the sidelined slugger revealed to the media that he was contemplating season-ending surgery on both heels, which apparently caught the Mets off guard; at that point, it’s worth noting, Van Wagenen was still Céspedes’ agent, while the team was being run by a triumvirate (John Ricco, J.P. Ricciardi, and Omar Minaya) during general manager Sandy Alderson’s treatment for cancer.

Said Van Wagenen of Sunday’s statement:

“I don’t think it was as much half-measured as much as it was wanting to be transparent and providing information in real time. Both in terms of integrity to the other side, integrity to all of you, is to try to make sure as when we get information we give it to the best way possible.”

…”No reaction at all in anger or any other hidden agenda other than just to provide the information in real time as we had it. Baseball has suffered some tragedies in the past and you want to make sure that those don’t repeat themselves, both in terms of making sure that everyone was aware that he was not here and trying to find out the reasons why as quickly and as fast as possible.”

Thus it’s fair to blame both sides as to how Sunday’s spectacle played out. It’s all tabloid fodder now, and it brings to a close Céspedes’ entertaining but stormy five-year tenure with the team, one that began with a July 31, 2015 arrival from the Tigers after a trade with the Brewers for Carlos Gómez fell through. Céspedes instantly injected excitement into the team, homering 17 times in his first 57 games following the trade while helping the Mets reach their first World Series since 2000. A free agent that winter, he re-signed via a three-year deal that included an opt-out, then hit 31 homers while making his second All-Star team as the Mets claimed a Wild Card berth. After opting out again, he signed his current deal but was limited to 81 games in 2017 and 38 in ’18 due to a variety of leg ailments that were ultimately linked to calcification in both heels. That he homered in his final two games in the latter season, one on May 13 and the next one on July 20, underscores the ups and downs he and the Mets endured with regards to his injuries.

Céspedes’ heels did not heal quickly, and on May 18, 2019, he sustained multiple fractures of his right ankle in a violent fall on his Port St. Lucie ranch. It was later discovered that the fall occurred during an encounter with a wild boar that he was attempting to trap — sure, why not? Long story short, the belief that he was doing something prohibited under his contract led the Mets to withhold part of his salary and ultimately to significant reductions in his pay, both for 2019 (reduced from $29 million to $22.9 million) and ’20 (from $29.5 million to $6 million plus incentives). This year’s base salary was to increase to $11 million once he was added to the active roster or placed on the injured list with an unrelated injury, with another $9 million attainable via playing time bonuses.

Céspedes was still in the process of working his way back to the field when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down spring training in March. The delay of the season gave him enough time to work his way back to shape, and the addition of the designated hitter spot opened the door to more playing time. He homered off the Brave’s Chris Martin on Opening Day — giving him three homers in three games, albeit 804 days apart — and providing the Mets with their lone run in a 1-0 win.

While he homered again against the Red Sox on July 29, he was hitting just .161/.235/.387 through 31 plate appearances, and initial reports leading up to Sunday were that he was out of the lineup. Via the New York Post’s Mike Puma and Joel Sherman, he had confronted Rojas previously when he was left out of the lineup, concerned that he was being prevented from attaining his bonuses, which like his salary were being prorated; his base salary was reduced to $2.2 million. According to the Post, Céspedes actually spoke to both Rojas and Van Wagenen on Saturday, and they assured him that their playing time decisions were not bonus-related.

Anyway, Céspedes’ departure leaves the 3-7 Mets with a chance to get more playing time for Dominic Smith, who has had just 16 plate appearances thus far while starting three times in left field (definitely not his best position) and once at DH. Still, for all of the headaches Céspedes caused the Mets, his presence and his flair for the dramatic will be missed.

Meanwhile, as the baseball world awaits word on the severity of the Cardinals’ outbreak, it seems likely that these four players — who bring the total number of opt-outs to 20, not including Nick Markakis‘ decision to opt back in — won’t be the last to remove themselves. So long as players have concern for their safety amid a pandemic that shows no signs of abating, against the backdrop of a league whose protocols may not be enough, they’ll continue to walk away.

We hoped you liked reading As the Coronavirus Halts Teams, Cain, Céspedes, and Others Opt Out by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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gvanlue
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gvanlue

All the best to Cespedes, and it’s a shame this wasn’t handled better on both ends. Baseball-wise, I think the Mets are better off giving the DH at bats to Dom Smith anyway.