The Case for Yoenis Cespedes

It’s mid-January, and to this point, no team has appeared as a front-runner to sign Yoenis Cespedes. Despite a monstrous 2015 season, he’s gotten caught up in the cold free agent market for hitters this winter, as the teams with money to spend all decided to go for pitching this off-season. Now, with Spring Training a month away, teams have shifted into bargain-hunting mode, so we get reports like this one.

In their attempts to re-sign Chris Davis, the Orioles reportedly put out an offer of $150 million over seven years; their reported comfort zone with Cespedes is for about half of that. The Davis offer is not a very wise one — he probably should have already taken it, given the likelihood that his skillset isn’t going to age well — but the idea that Cespedes is worth 50-60% of Davis is laughable.

Davis and Cespedes
Player 2015 WAR 2012-2015 WAR 2016 ZIPS 2016 Steamer
Chris Davis 5.6 15.5 3.8 2.3
Yoenis Cespedes 6.7 15.4 4.4 2.9

Davis and Cespedes are essentially the same age. During his time in MLB, he and Davis have been almost exactly equal in value, though Cespedes was better in 2015, and he projects better by about half a win going forward. Cespedes is an elite athlete, the kind of player who often ages quite well, while Davis is a big-bodied one-tool slugger, the type of guy who notoriously falls apart in his early-30s. If you’re going long-term with one of these two, you’re better off with the athlete who contributes in multiple facets of the game.

But Peter Angelos isn’t known for making the most rational decisions, and Dan Connelly reported that the Davis offer essentially includes an affinity bonus, giving Davis a home-town premium based on his history with the organization, which helps explain why the Orioles valuations for these two players are so off the mark. But at this point, I think it’s fair to question whether the rest of the league is overlooking a rare free agent bargain.

In a lot of ways, Cespedes reminds me of a free agent from five years ago: Adrian Beltre.

Beltre and Cespedes
2008 5 13 3.9
2009 -11 16 2.1
2010 30 13 6.4
Total 24 42 12.4
Cespedes OFF DEF WAR
2013 4 0 2.4
2014 9 0 3.3
2015 31 10 6.7
Total 44 10 12.4

Both Cespedes and Beltre had monster walk-years following a couple of years of above average production, and both have similar skillsets; they’re overly aggressive hitters who rely heavily on their physical tools for production and are superstars when they’re hitting for a lot of power. Beltre was more heavily dependent on his defensive value while Cespedes was a better hitter, so they’re not identical players, but there are a lot of parallels.

In the winter of 2010, the Rangers signed Beltre to a six year, $96 million contract, covering his age 31-36 seasons; it’s turned to be maybe the best big-money free agent signing in baseball history. Over the first five years of the deal, Beltre has put up +27 WAR, ranking behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, and Andrew McCutchen among position players during that stretch, and his production has been worth double what the Rangers have paid him. The Rangers bet on an athlete with an all-around game and won big. That same winter, the White Sox bet $52 million on Adam Dunn’s three-true-outcomes skillset and ended up with a replacement level DH.

Of course, these are extreme examples. Not every good athlete coming off a great walk year is Beltre 2.0. Not every lumbering slugger is going to collapse as quickly as Dunn did. But there’s no real reason that Cespedes should have to settle for essentially the same contract that Beltre got five years ago. Prices for everything in baseball have gone way up in the last half-decade — Cliff Lee signed for 5/$120M that winter, coming off a +7 WAR season — and the idea that elite athletes with real value on both sides of the ball should be facing price stagnation is something of a joke.

A year ago, Pablo Sandoval got 5/$95M as a bad-bodied third baseman who had put up +7.7 WAR over the the prior three years before he reached free agency; Cespedes almost matched that total in 2015 alone. Two years ago, Shin-Soo Choo got 7/$130M coming off a +5.5 WAR season that was preceded by +2.3 and +1.5 WAR years; he was selling the same ages that Cespedes is selling now. Yes, teams should learn from the mistakes of these deals, but Cespedes is better now than both of those players were at the time they signed their deals, and he’s being offered less money in an environment where inflation has shown no sign of slowing down.

And, I’d argue, the inconsistent track record is a feature and not a bug. If Cespedes had put up three straight years of a 116 wRC+, instead of the 102-109-135 trend he actually put up, you’d actually project him worse than the inconsistent track he’s been on, because you want to put more weight on the most recent performance. Moving some of his home runs from 2015 to 2014 or 2013 would make him appear less volatile, but also would introduce a greater likelihood that his skills were diminishing. The fact that Cespedes went okay-okay-great should be more reason for optimism than if he just went good-good-good.

Combining ZIPS optimistic forecast with Steamer’s more pessimistic viewpoint, Cespedes looks like a +3.5 WAR player for 2016. If you age him normally from that point, then a fair market contract for him would look something like this.

Yoenis Cespedes’ Contract Estimate — 6 yr / $118.3 M
Year Age WAR $/WAR Est. Contract
2016 30 3.5 $8.0 M $28.0 M
2017 31 3.0 $8.4 M $25.2 M
2018 32 2.5 $8.8 M $22.1 M
2019 33 2.0 $9.3 M $18.5 M
2020 34 1.5 $9.7 M $14.6 M
2021 35 1.0 $10.0 M $10.0 M
Totals 13.5 $118.3 M


Value: $8M/WAR with 5.0% inflation
Aging Curve: +0.25 WAR/yr (18-27), 0 WAR/yr (28-30),-0.5 WAR/yr (31-37),-0.75 WAR/yr (> 37)

6/$120M would put him in line with Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto rather than the Mike Leake/Jeff Samardzija combination that Baltimore’s offer is comparing him to. Personally, I’d take Cespedes over the next five or six years before any of those pitchers, but at the very least, he belongs closer to Cueto than Samardzija. I know the market fell in love with pitchers this winter, but the idea that Jordan Zimmermann is worth more than Yoenis Cespedes is silly.

The Orioles have every right to try and take advantage of an irrationally weak market for quality hitters, and if they end up getting Cespedes for less than $100 million, kudos to them. But the rest of the league shouldn’t be content to sit around and let that happen. Cespedes is a good player, better than the guy the Orioles want to give $150 million to, and if he ends up settling for a Samardzija-type deal, 29 teams may end up regretting not opening their wallets for a chance to land a valuable piece at a bargain price.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

If that’s the market the White Sox would be nuts to not go grab him or Upton, their 3-year posturing be damned