On the back of a terrific young rotation, the Mets are contender-ish this year, and so for the last few months, there has been a steadily increasing cry to improve the team’s feeble offense. After all, the Mets position players are 27th in wRC+, and even after acquiring Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, this was an offense that didn’t really inspire much confidence. And so, the Mets have been looking for a slugger they can stick behind (or maybe in front of) Lucas Duda, and after walking away from Carlos Gomez on Wendesday night, they’ve reportedly landed Yoenis Cespedes right before the deadline.
The cost was a couple of solid but not spectacular prospects. Michael Fulmer is the headliner in the deal, and while Kiley McDaniel gave him a 45 FV grade before the season, he told me he’d bump him up to a 50 based on the improved slider and command he’s shown this year. Still, it’s mostly a toss-up whether he’s a starter or a reliever, and he’s sticking with his Joba Chamberlain comparison, so this isn’t exactly a premium pitching prospect that the Mets just surrendered. Luis Cessa, the second prospect, is more of just an arm-strength guy with average secondary stuff; Kiley mentioned he’s still a 40 FV and compared him to the pitching prospects the team gave up to get Uribe and Johnson last week.
The big concession here is that they only control Cespedes through the end of the season, as he’s not the multi-year player they were looking for earlier. After the Gomez deal fell apart, and they apparently decided not to meet the Reds asking price for Jay Bruce, rentals were really the only options on the table, so at least they got the best rental position player left. Cespedes is currently in the midst of the best season of his career, already putting up +4.2 WAR in the first 100 games of the year, though he shouldn’t be expected to keep playing at that level; the Mets are probably buying about +1.5 WAR over the remainder of the season.
In fact, for all the long-running talk about the Mets as a landing spot for Troy Tulowitzki, Cespedes actually projects to be a better player over the rest of the 2015 season. His combination of power and quality defense make him a well above average player even in a normal year, and the Mets are acquiring him when he’s performing at the peak of his abilities. And they got to keep most of the best parts of their future in tact in order to do it.
So, realistically, the questions are more about how Cespedes fits in New York than whether about this is a fair price to pay for a good player; it pretty clearly is, given the other trades we’ve seen this week. But while the Mets have long been searching for offense, Cespedes is still a bit of an awkward fit for New York.
By adding a corner outfielder, the Mets now essentially have two options; they can send rookie Michael Conforto back to the minors, or they could shift either Cespedes or Curtis Granderson to center field, displacing Juan Lagares, who is hitting like a guy who belongs on the disabled list. But while the team would get a big offensive boost from swapping in Cespedes for Lagares, neither Cespedes not Granderson are a great fit for CF defensively, and the team would be giving back some of this upgrade in the field. Taking a page out of the Mets pre-season playbook and punting defense to get more sluggers into the line-up isn’t really a great idea, as the Padres results this season have shown.
Conforto hasn’t played so well that you can’t possibly send him back down, or use him as a part-time guy, but as a lefty, he’s not a candidate to platoon with Granderson, and you’re not going to be giving Cespedes many days off down the stretch. So, if the team goes with the better defensive alignment in order to get the maximum upgrade overall — even in his current state, Lagares is a better player than Conforto — then the kid they just called up probably goes back to the minors, and the Mets get a smaller offensive upgrade than they could have otherwise. If they go with the largest bump in production at the plate, the cost in the field might hurt them more than it helps. So, there’s a decision to be made here, and it’s not entirely clear which way the Mets will go.
And, of course, there’s the fact that Cespedes is a rental. The Mets were primarily looking for guys under control beyond 2015 because, while they have a shot at a playoff spot this year, the most likely scenario is that they end up falling a bit short in the end, losing out in the NL East race to a better Nationals team, and unable to make up enough ground to run down the Cubs, Giants, and Pirates in the Wild Card chase. Cespedes gives them more of a fighting chance, but they’re still not likely to make the postseason, meaning that this might end up resulting in the loss of some future value for nothing more than a few extra regular season wins that don’t turn into much.
But for this level of cost, I think it’s a shot worth taking. Fulmer and Cessna are not pillars of the Mets future, and this isn’t a dramatically higher cost than the Orioles paid to get Gerardo Parra in a similar situation. Any time you give up a live-arm who is already having success in Double-A for a rental, it has a chance to blow up in your face, but non-elite pitching prospects have huge ranges of outcomes, and most of the times, they end up turning into nothing you’d really miss. Perhaps the Tigers will turn Fulmer into a quality starter, but more likely, he’s a reliever or a washout, like so many other mid-tier pitching prospects before him.
That doesn’t mean you give away guys like this, as prospect depth has value, and Fulmer could have been exchanged for something of longer-term value this winter, even. But the Mets do have something of an opportunity here, and this seems like a reasonable price to pay to pry the window a little bit more open. It’s not a huge crushing blow to their future, and if the Nationals keep struggling or the Mets get hot and steal a Wild Card spot, the couple of wins Cespedes adds will likely provide more value to the organization than Fulmer ever would have. It’s a gamble, but it’s not a gamble that came at an extraordinarily high price.
And, while I’m generally not a fan of including public relations in baseball operations decision making, the reality is that the Mets reputation can’t afford to take too many more hits. The team took a beating for the way they handled the Gomez non-trade, and if they let the deadline pass without making any moves at all, the narrative surrounding the team being run by misers would only grow more entrenched. At some point, it’s not a terrible idea to do something to stop a tidal wave of negativity surrounding your organization, especially when the team is actually playing better than expected this year. You don’t want to make trades simply to placate the fan base, but if it’s a happy byproduct of doing a deal that makes sense for baseball reasons, well, then all the better.
Overall, the Mets got Cespedes for not that much more than the Orioles paid to get Gerardo Parra, and certainly got him for less than they were going to pay to get Carlos Gomez 48 hours ago. Cespedes isn’t as good a fit for the team as Gomez would have been, and he probably won’t be in Queens next year, but for 2015, this is a real upgrade at a cost that makes sense. It might not turn into a playoff spot anyway, but given the Mets proximity to a postseason berth, doing something like this makes more sense than doing nothing.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.