Before last week, many Mets fans were frustrated by their team’s less-than-aggressive pursuit of free agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Losing out on Cespedes would have been especially frustrating after the Mets failed to sign their top free agent target, Ben Zobrist.
Rather than enter a bidding war for Cespedes, however, the Mets stuck to their plan of offering him only a short-term deal. The Mets then waited out a market that was slow to develop. Eventually, rather than accept relatively underwhelming offers from teams like the Nationals, Cespedes chose to return to the Mets with a chance to test a weaker free agent market next offseason, should he exercise his opt-out clause.
It’s not the first time the Alderson front office was rewarded for its patience. In fact, the Mets confronted similar situations in the last few offseasons and, more often than not, their refusal to bite on long-term deals for high-profile free agents paid off.
The Alderson front office faced its first major decision on a free agent following the 2011 season. Longtime Mets shortstop Jose Reyes was coming off one of his best years in the majors (.337/.384/.493, 142 wRC+, 5.9 fWAR) and had just won the National League batting title. Rather than pursuing the fan favorite, Alderson let Reyes sign a six-year, $106 million contract with the Marlins without even making him a formal offer.
Reyes was fairly productive in his first three seasons away from New York, averaging 3.2 fWAR a year with a .289/.342/.419 batting line (109 wRC+). That said, he probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference to the rebuilding Mets, who were uncompetitive in each of those three seasons. Last year, just as the Mets turned the corner and won the National League pennant, Reyes had his worst season in the big leagues, hitting an underwhelming .274/.310/.378 (80 wRC+), with 0.5 fWAR. Somewhat incredibly, both Wilmer Flores (.263/.295/.408, 95 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR) and Ruben Tejada (.261/.338/.350, 95 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR) had better years than Reyes did.
Reyes is owed $22 million for each of the next two seasons. Between Flores, Tejada, and Asdrubal Cabrera—who, at .265/.315/.430, 104 wRC+, and 2.2 fWAR, also had a better 2015 than did Reyes—the Mets seem to have better and more cost-effective shortstop options at their disposal.
After the 2012 season, the Mets’ biggest task (among others) was to find a center fielder. The top center fielder on the market was Melvin Upton, whom the Mets never seriously considered. That alone was a good move, as Upton went on to have three disappointing seasons (.209/.287/.335, 74 wRC+, 0.5 average fWAR per season) in Atlanta and San Diego, with two years left on his contract.
After the Braves signed Upton, the Mets began aggressively pursuing Michael Bourn. Bourn was a popular free agent target that the Mets’ fanbase rallied around during that offseason. However, the Mets were reluctant to surrender the first-round draft pick that would have been required to sign the center fielder. As a result, Bourn signed with the Indians rather than wait for MLB to approve the Mets’ appeal to protect their pick.
Once again, the Mets’ caution paid off: Over the last three years, Bourn (.253/.313/.336, 83 wRC+, 0.7 average fWAR per year) has been among the worst hitters in baseball, ranking in the bottom 25 among 233 qualified players in wRC+. In WAR, Bourn ranked in the bottom 45 out of 233. The center fielder has another year at $14 million left on his contract and, assuming MLB denied the Mets’ request to protect their pick, Bourn would have cost the team Dominic Smith.
Like Bourn, Stephen Drew was an extremely popular free agent on whom the Mets wisely passed. Ruben Tejada had a disappointing year for the Mets in 2013 and the team appeared desperate for an upgrade at shortstop. Although Drew was coming off a good season with the Red Sox, the Mets were unwilling to give him more than a one-year deal. Drew infamously waited out the market until late May, when he finally re-signed with Boston.
As was the case with Bourn, the Mets averted disaster by passing up on Drew. Over the last two years, the infielder has been among the worst players in baseball, hitting just .185/.257/.347 (63 wRC+), with -0.8 fWAR. Among the 229 players with at least 700 plate appearances in those two years, Drew ranked third from the bottom in wRC+ and fifth from the bottom in WAR.
During that same offseason, the Mets entered the market for a big corner outfield bat. Given his excellent track record and his selective hitting approach that fit the Mets’ organizational philosophy, Shin-Soo Choo became the most prominent name associated with the team. It quickly became clear, however, that the Mets were not interested in giving Choo the seven-year deal that he commanded, and the outfielder eventually signed with the Rangers. The Mets settled on Curtis Granderson for a contract worth three fewer years and less than half the money.
The Mets were again rewarded for their decision. Granderson was better than Choo in each of the last two years by both wRC+ and WAR, and Choo (.260/.359/.423, 115 wRC+, 3.6 fWAR over two years) has not lived up to his expectations in Cleveland and Cincinnati.
In the 2013-2014 offseason, the Mets made another smart decision by signing starting pitcher Bartolo Colon over Bronson Arroyo, with whom the team was "heavily involved." Colon became a serviceable fifth starter for the Mets, while Arroyo made just 14 starts in 2014 before missing the rest of that season and all of 2015 with a torn UCL.
Last offseason, for the second year in a row, the Mets’ priority was to add a good offensive corner outfielder. While their signing of Michael Cuddyer did not work out as planned, the Mets avoided a costlier mistake with longer-term implications by passing up on left fielder Melky Cabrera. Cabrera was a top free agent in last year’s market, and a player who many believed fit the Mets’ corner outfield need perfectly. However, after signing a three-year, $42 million deal with the White Sox, Cabrera had a disappointing 2015 season in which he hit just .273/.314/.394 (91 wRC+), with -0.3 fWAR.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the two potential blockbuster trades that fell through before last year’s trade deadline. The first, of course, was the one involving Wilmer Flores and Zack Wheeler for the Brewers’ Carlos Gomez. The Mets, to the consternation of their fanbase, pulled the plug on that trade at the 11th hour due to concerns about Gomez’s hip. The second trade involved sending Zack Wheeler to the Reds for Jay Bruce. Instead, the Mets opted to send minor leaguers Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa to the Tigers in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes, a move that couldn’t have worked out any better for New York.
In his 57 games as a Met, Cespedes hit an outstanding .287/.337/.604 (157 wRC+) and helped carry the team to its first division title in nine years. During that time, Gomez struggled to a .250/.297/.396 batting line (87 wRC+) with the Astros, while Bruce’s production completely collapsed to just a .178/.219/.357 (45 wRC+) mark.
In reviewing the Alderson front office’s five-year track record in New York, one thing is clear: While they have often been reluctant to say "yes," Sandy Alderson and his team have been quite good at saying "no."
To be fair, we shouldn’t overlook the free agents who could have helped the Mets, but whom the Mets chose not to pursue. Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta are two prime examples. Cruz had excellent years with the Orioles and Mariners after the Mets passed up on him in each of the last two offseasons. Peralta had a great year with the Cardinals in 2014, and followed that up with a solid 2015 campaign. Both players were more productive over the last two years than were their Mets counterparts: Curtis Granderson and Wilmer Flores.
We also shouldn’t ignore the Mets’ free agent busts, like Chris Young and Michael Cuddyer. However, those were relatively short-term commitments that did not hamstring the team’s ability to make other moves. We should also keep in mind the productive free agent signings that the Alderson front office made—Granderson and Marlon Byrd, for example—and what appears to be its 4-for-4 record on significant trades (i.e., the trades for Zack Wheeler, Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, Dilson Herrera, and Yoenis Cespedes).
In short, it seems that the Alderson front office has earned the benefit of our doubt. The New York fanbase exerted enormous pressure on the Mets throughout this offseason to offer expensive, long-term contracts to players like Yoenis Cespedes and Ben Zobrist. Both moves would seem to make the Mets a better team in 2016. Moreover, locking up Cespedes earlier in the offseason would have decreased the risk of him signing a lesser deal with another team, like the Nationals.
At the same time, we’ve seen this movie before. As we just chronicled, Alderson’s front office was confronted with similar pressures in the past and, more often than not, it made the Mets a better team by resisting those pressures.
Players like Bourn and Drew weren’t just disappointing after signing with their new teams. They were unmitigated disasters that the Mets avoided, largely by going against the wishes of their fanbase. And, by not signing players like Choo and Bourn, the front office gave itself the flexibility to add better players like Granderson and Cespedes.
It’s true that the Mets are in a different position today than they’ve been in previous offseasons. The Mets are finally a competitive team, and they’re at the point at which one more productive player could be the difference between making the playoffs and missing out on them. Still, that’s no reason to be reckless.
Cespedes is on the wrong side of 30, his walk rate has gone down and his chase rate has gone up in each of the last four years, and the Mets will shoehorn him into the center field position, which he does not play well (-17 DRS, -12.6 UZR as a center fielder over the course of his career). Zobrist is on the wrong side of 34 and is coming off his worst full season in the big leagues, by WAR. While many fans—including myself—wouldn’t have minded seeing the Mets give either player a longer-term deal, there are very legitimate reasons to be wary of doing so.
Zobrist might be a great investment for the Cubs. Likewise, the Mets may regret not keeping Cespedes around for longer than what will probably be just one year. But there’s serious reason to believe that neither will be the case. Given recent history, it shouldn’t surprise us if the Mets are once again rewarded for saying "no."