Sunday night complicated things, a little. One can never talk about what the Mets should do without talking about the disconnect between that and what the Mets will do, and the gulf between those two things grows out of both the bizarre ownership situation and the even more bizarre fan culture that surrounds the team. Thus, when Yoenis Cespedes cracked a game-winning, two-run homer to beat the Giants on national TV and bring the Mets back to .500 Sunday night, he made it excruciatingly hard for the Mets to consider trading him. Still, if we can (hypothetically) bridge the gap between what is and what ought to be for a moment, the fact is that they ought to explore it.
It’s not entirely clear (it rarely is) whether or not Cespedes has yet been passed through revocable waivers this month. I strongly suspect he hasn’t, since he hit the DL at the very beginning of August. Here’s what is clear: The Giants and Dodgers are the only potential claimants. Cespedes is still owed something like $6.5 million of the $27.5 million he will make this season, before (inevitably) opting out and becoming a free agent again this winter. That’s a staggering sum. The Marlins and Pirates are fairly legitimate Wild Card contenders, however fringy, but neither is anywhere near able to take on that kind of money. However confident they might feel that the Mets wouldn’t let Cespedes go and leave them holding the full bag, those teams aren’t risking a claim. The Cardinals just lost Matt Holliday and have plenty of money to make a Cespedes addition work, but:
The last thing the team needs right now is to make a big outlay (in money, talent, or both) to solidify what is only a chance to host the Wild Card Game, further complicating their effort to keep a foothold in the NL Central and head off a budding Cubs dynasty.
They do have the money to pay Cespedes. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean they could do so comfortably, or that they would. I very much doubt that they would.
It's possible that one of these teams might claim Cespedes just to block another team from trading for him, confident that the Mets would value a compensation draft pick more highly than $6.5 million saved and therefore wouldn't simply award the blocking team the claim. (It's possible, in fact, that this has already happened!) But it's no sure thing—the possibility, nor the assumption about the Mets' priorities. Barring such a block-claim, this could push Cespedes up as far as the Giants or Dodgers, whoever is trailing in the NL West at the time when he hits the wire. Both of those teams have tons of money. Both also have more to gain from claiming Cespedes than either the trio of teams below them or the two comfortable division leaders above them on the ladder. There’s a division title at stake there. With the Cardinals creeping upward, it might well turn out that the loser of the race for the NL West will have to go to St. Louis for the Wild Card Game.
So here’s the scenario: the Mets pass Cespedes through waivers. Either the Dodgers or the Giants claim him (presumably, whoever is trailing in the division at the time). Now, the Mets face the dilemma of whether or not to actually trade him. Here’s the gist of the case.
There’s no hope of winning the NL East here. We have them at 0.1 percent on the Playoff Odds Report, which feels generous. They lag the Nationals by double-digit games and the Marlins by a few. The division is gone. In the Wild Card, the outlook is only slightly less dim. We’re giving them about a 12 percent shot at the Wild Card Game, half that to reach the NLDS, at which point something has really been accomplished. They trail the Cardinals, Marlins, and Pirates in the race for the second slot, and the Cardinals are definitely better than they are. If any of what feel like two or three ticking injury time bombs in their rotation go off (as Steven Matz might be doing right now), even Pittsburgh and Miami are probably better.
In Jay Bruce, the Mets traded for a replacement for Cespedes, if not quite the perfect one. They have a corner outfield spot spoken for, both this season and next, before Michael Conforto even enters the equation. It’s possible the Mets want Cespedes to be the long-term answer in a corner spot, over either of those guys, and over Curtis Granderson, and over Brandon Nimmo. Trading him now wouldn’t foreclose that possibility. What it would do is give them a month and change to evaluate those players heading into the winter, weigh their options with more and better information, and make the best bid they can come winter—all without totally torpedoing their chances of sneaking into the Wild Card Game.
The Mets built this talented team around pitching. That’s a risky way to build. It means short windows within which to contend, because you never know when an injury (or three, or more) will derail the plan. Still, they have Conforto, Nimmo, Amed Rosario, Dom Smith, and others, in addition to what’s already established at the big-league level, and more pitching left in the system despite all the injuries and promotions, and despite trading Michael Fulmer a little over a year ago. There’s no reason why the Mets should hold onto this thin, small chance they have for 2016, at the expense of 2017 and beyond. In fact, there’s every reason why they ought to move to secure what is an uncertain but still promising future.
There’s a weird and complicated alternate universe in which the Mets get either the Carlos Gomez deal or the Bruce deal done last July. In neither case is it clear that the Mets would have won the NL pennant last year. In neither case is it clear that they would have won the NL East at all. Ultimately, the way the Nationals fell apart, the division probably belonged to the Mets all along, but it’s not certain. On the other hand, in that alternate universe, the Mets have somewhere north of $10 million more to spend this winter than they actually had. Daniel Murphy might not have attained the same fame, and might not have commanded the same money, and the team might have re-signed him. Not only that, but the team would have Michael Fulmer, and not Zack Wheeler. In the end, maybe both of those guys will be worth about the same thing, but right now, there’s a gulf between them, value-wise. In this weird, complicated alternate universe, maybe last year doesn’t happen for the Mets, but maybe this year does.
That’s my biggest argument for the main thesis of this piece: the Mets ought to trade Cespedes. They ought to do it, right now, because every individual season is fragile. Every division title or playoff appearance, in isolation, is a happy accident. Teams in positions like the Mets’ should always, always think past any particular season, and try to make the most of all the seasons in front of them.
They’d have to convince either the Dodgers or the Giants to give up more than a draft pick’s worth of prospect value in exchange for Cespedes. They’d have to get Cespedes himself to approve the deal, too, though I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t want to go out West and play for a playoff team down the stretch, fortifying his reputation as a clutch slugger and maximizing his exposure again heading into free agency. I bet they could do all of that, though, and if they could, they certainly should. The Mets might run out of tomorrows, if they can’t take their eyes off today.