The galvanizing force of Yoenis Cespedes that powered the New York Mets to the World Series — and then fizzled during it — has many marketable traits, and during batting practice this past weekend at Citi Field it didn’t take former manager Jim Leyland long to list them.
“A special athlete who can do anything,” Leyland said. “He looks like one of those guys that, to me, could be a running back. He could probably dunk a basketball. You know what I mean? He’s a terrific talent. Speed. Power. Great arm. He’s one of those tools players.”
Yet, the Mets were his fourth team in two seasons.
“One thing that probably happened, like in our case,” Leyland added, referencing his most recent team, the Detroit Tigers, “was we thought we couldn’t keep him.”
Now baseball gets to find out who can sign him.
On Friday, a series of deadlines greets Major League Baseball and its 30 clubs, ending with the gates swinging open on free agency. Teams have until 11 p.m. St. Louis time to negotiate, exclusively, with their free agents, after which time all free agents hit the open market and can begin signing with any team. That doesn’t mean they will. Baseball’s free agent market is, traditionally, plodding as it develops, relying on players like the Cardinals’ Jason Heyward and Cespedes to help define the market for others at their position.
This year’s class, headlined by former Cy Young Award winners David Price and Zack Greinke, features depth at starting pitcher and outfield. There are talents at various price points, and there are various talents — like Cespedes’ power or Heyward’s defense — that will get pricey.
The Cardinals, like other teams, have a few steps to take Friday afternoon before they reach the open waters of free agency.
By 4 p.m. St. Louis time, teams must present a qualifying offer to free agents in order to secure a draft pick as compensation if they should sign elsewhere. The Cardinals will give Heyward a qualifying offer, which for any player is the same as offering a one-year, $15.8-million deal. Heyward will inevitably decline as he seeks a multi-year deal likely worth at least tenfold. If the Cardinals are unable to bring Heyward back they will receive a draft pick, and the team that does sign him will lose one. The Cardinals also have been considering whether to deliver a qualifying offer to starter John Lackey. Lackey also is seeking a multi-year deal, but tethering him to a draft pick could restrain his market.
Lackey said he “hoped” the Cardinals would leave him unattached.
• PODCAST: Goold & Hochman on Cards and free agency
No player has yet accepted a qualifying offer.
Also by Friday afternoon, interested teams must submit their bids for Korean slugger Byung-ho Park. The Cardinals could be one suitor. They have scouted Park, 29, and been encouraged by how his righthanded swing would translate to the majors. The first baseman hit 52 and 53 home runs the past two seasons for the Nexen Heroes, who posted him for bids earlier this month. A year ago, the Cardinals were outbid by Pittsburgh for Korean shortstop Jung Ho Kang, but they came away with a better feel for how they evaluate talent from the KBO. General manager John Mozeliak said recently that the Cardinals “may have to be more aggressive on the international front.”
The team with the winning bid will be notified within a week.
Amidst all of this activity — actual or potential — Mozeliak and the other general managers will travel to Boca Raton, Fla., next week for their annual meetings. It is there that the free-agent and trade markets gain further clarity.
The Cardinals enter the winter interested in bringing back Heyward, who will command a contract unlike the team has ever offered, and exploring ways to augment their offense. First baseman Chris Davis, who led the American League with 47 homers, and Cespedes represent rarities in baseball — available power hitters. Cespedes boosted his résumé after being traded by the Tigers to the Mets at the deadline.
When the Mets acquired Cespedes they had scored the fewest runs in the National League. He fueled a two-month jag that put them among the leaders in scoring during that time. In 57 games for the Mets, Cespedes hit 17 homers and slugged .604. Mets manager Terry Collins referred to what Cespedes brought to his lineup as “mega-power,” and described how “the entire lineup took a big sigh because we could stick him in the middle and everybody else could relax.”
“He can win you baseball games in a lot of different ways,” Mets hitting coach Kevin Long said. “I know when he became a part of our lineup we were different. It all starts with him in the middle and then you’ve got some pieces around him. He’s certainly the biggest piece. He solidified the lineup as soon as he was present.”
It’s a presence in the lineup that Cardinals seek.
Not that Cespedes has the traits they desire. According to ESPN Deportes, Cespedes wants a six-year deal. Salary offers could soar for him and Davis. Heyward doesn’t have the roman-candle power of those two, but he’ll draw interested parties for his all-around sizzle — and his age. Considered the finest defensive right fielder in the game, Heyward is 26 and still will be 26 when the 2016 season starts. For perspective, consider that Kansas City left fielder Alex Gordon, a superb defender and also a free agent as of Friday night, will be six years older on opening day.
Both Heyward and Gordon offer a lefthanded-hitting option for the Cardinals, who already are populated on the right side with outfielders Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty.
The pool of free-agent outfielders does not lack for options, and it also doesn’t have an obvious alpha like Greinke or Price that will attract numerous teams. The Cubs, for example, have center fielder Dexter Fowler hitting the open market, and he’ll draw a different set of interested teams than Cespedes or Justin Upton but share some of the teams pursuing Heyward, Colby Rasmus, or Gerardo Parra. Cespedes, 30, was one of the last free-agents-to-be playing but doesn’t necessarily have to be the first to go for the market to churn.
During the World Series, Cespedes was haphazard on defense and, in October, hit .222 with more strikeouts (17) than total bases (15). Before the playoffs, he had sped toward free agency like a comet, sending off sparks of production. There’s no doubt Cespedes ignited the Mets.
Baseball awaits whoever will do that for the market.
“We’ll take time to study what the potential trade market looks like and have a really strong understanding of that as we enter the GM meetings,” Mozeliak said at the end of the season. “Like all offseasons, this year will have its challenges. It’ll also have its opportunities.”