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Yoenis Cespedes looks to carry the Mets to glory in 2017

The Mets gave Cespedes the contract, and now it’s time for him to deliver the goods.

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at New York Mets Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Yoenis Cespedes has been a linchpin in the Mets’ lineup since the moment he walked into Citi Field on August 1, 2015. After re-signing with the club, the outfielder dealt with nagging leg injuries for much of 2016, but he still posted a batting line of .280/.354/.530 with a 134 wRC+. He also produced the 12th-best average exit velocity in the league, and he knocked 31 homers in 132 games.

But the most impressive part of his season was that it could’ve been even better. On September 1, Cespedes had a 150 wRC+, which would’ve been a top-10 offensive season in Mets history. But he struggled for the first time all year in September, and it brought down his overall numbers. It’s possible the leg injuries that forced him to miss time finally started to have an effect on his play down the stretch.

Nonetheless, Cespedes opted out of his contract with the Mets in the offseason and requested big-time money in free agency. The Mets, to the surprise of some, fulfilled his request, and locked in the 31-year-old for four years and $110 million, keeping him in Flushing for several more years. But even though the Cuban slugger is now guaranteed a contract until 2020, he’s not going to mail it in for the rest of his Mets tenure. He’s looking to not only uphold his end of the contract, but go above and beyond what he’s ever done and be the NL MVP.

It’s easy to see how hard Cespedes has worked this offseason to—incredibly—get in even better shape than he already was. Many have noted how much more built he appears this year than in years past, and he’s even documented his ridiculous workouts. And the returns so far this spring have been as encouraging as they can be. Cespedes has already blasted four homers in spring training, and all of them have been impressive.

If the physical shape Cespedes is in doesn’t inspire confidence that his performance isn’t slowing down in 2017, there are several encouraging nuggets you can also take out of his 2016 numbers as well. In his second year of working with hitting coach Kevin Long, Cespedes remarkably improved his patience. Before last year, one of his biggest weaknesses was his plate discipline, but in 2016 Cespedes walked more than he ever had before. He raised his walk rate from 5.0% in 2015 to a career-best 9.4%, and he chased pitches less often than he ever had before, swinging at only 33.1% of pitches out of the strike zone, down from 37.5% in 2015. This change in plate discipline not only shows his desire to be a better all-around hitter but also that he is skilled enough to actually be one.

What’s more, Cespedes is likely to see his overall value actually boosted by his defense this year, which was not the case in 2016. He’s not expected to play much in center field, where he played quite a bit in 2016 and struggled. Instead, he will play left field regularly, where he won a gold glove in 2015 after putting up a +22.2 UZR/150 and a +15 DRS at the position.

There seems to be almost no way that Cespedes will not be productive if he’s healthy in 2017. He’s safely an elite hitter at this point and is only making strides to get better. That said, health is not a given. As mentioned, he missed about 30 games last season due to leg injuries, and he’s already dealt with hip soreness this spring. It is of the utmost importance for the Mets that Cespedes is 100 percent healthy this year.