If you're like me, sometime around July you start looking not only at the upcoming free agent class, but the next year's as well. Roster construction fascinates me. Planning for the future in both open market and controlled commodities, all while accepting that these are human beings who play the hardest sport on Earth, is wild to me. As someone who has looked ahead a few years for what players may become available to the MLB open market, it is in my opinion, time for the Seattle Mariners to sign Yoenis Cespedes.
A Quick and Dirty Comparison
Last offseason, a 26 year-old Jason Heyward hot off a 6.0 fWAR season with the St. Louis Cardinals, hit free agency. The numbers being thrown around for a speculative contract varied all over. Would he be the first player to make $30M AAV? How long would a team be willing to lock down a young, burgeoning talent at a premium position? I even wrote this piece, advocating for a player of his skill set due to the relative lack of an aging curve for his bat. As we all know, he would sign with the Chicago Cubs, go on to have the single worst season of his career, and earn a World Championship ring. The contract he signed? Eight years and $184M. Or, an AAV of $23M.
The use of Heyward as a comparison is admittedly clunky. This year's FA class is a far different proposition than last's. This year, Yo will enter the market as one of two (Dexter Fowler, the other) premium outfielders teams may bid for. Heyward signed his contract in a market full of outfield talent, Cespedes will be a premium. The players are fundamentally different, as well. Cespedes is the wrong side of 30, and lacks the defensive quality of Jason Heyward. Yo has minor injury concerns. His days of playing center are hopefully over. He's a corner guy. He won't kill you out there, has a cannon arm, and likely, eventually makes a transition to first base in later years.
The Cost of Cespedes
It's hard for me to fully postulate what Yo's contract might look like, but I think 5/$120M is probably in the ballpark. That's a $24M AAV, actually above what Heyward ultimately signed for, and exactly the same value of the Robinson Cano blockbuster. Maybe that's high and maybe it's low depending what some NL East teams are willing to bid, but for the sake of argument, let's say that's what the market bears and that money is distributed evenly throughout those five years. We can debate the exact amount and length ad nauseum, but the AAV is going to be in the mid-20's. Cespedes will be one of the top paid players in the league once the new season begins.
Mariners as a Fit
As things currently lay, with the roster issues at catcher and first base more or less addressed, the Seattle Mariners have something like $124M in committed payroll already for the 2017 season. That number appears to be more than $30M short of the Opening Day payroll in 2016, a number that the M's FO has said they will at least match if not exceed. Of course, some of that money appears to be set aside to address potential bullpen needs, a lefty reliever being the most obvious and commonly talked about needs. Signing Cespedes for something in the $24M AAV ballpark still allows the M's to address these needs with a few bounce-back candidates, and maybe even still trade for Zack Cozart to fill a need at shortstop. The payroll would have to increase, but it appears to already be green-lighted to do so.
With the acquisition of Danny Valencia, who will primarily play first base but can swing to outfield, an acquisition of Yoenis allows Valencia to play first full time, Cruz to remain at DH, and takes away any need to rely on a breakout year from Dan Vogelbach and Guillermo Heredia or Ben Gamel. While all three players are young and exciting, especially the toolsy Heredia, this aging roster needs to maximize the remaining years of an elite Robinson Cano and a seemingly ageless Nelson Cruz. Eventually the window closes and Cespedes probably not only props it open, but keeps it open longer.
Cespedes is fresh off a nearly 4 fWAR year that saw him essentially double his walk rate. In 2016 he managed to slightly slash his strikeouts, as well. All this while nearly matching a career best home run total, hitting 31 bombs last season. The bat is lethal, posting a wRC+ of 134 to match with the power threat. Last year he swung less often, made more contact, too. There's signs there that there's a lot of life left in the bat.
At the end of the day, I don't think Yoenis Cespedes enters 2017 as a Seattle Mariner. I'm relatively sure the Mets will be able to offer him a package that makes staying worthwhile and its a large change for a team that isn't a surefire contender in 2017. However, taking on a player like Yo makes the Mariners a totally different beast in 2017. A clubhouse full of Latin leaders and fellow countrymen in Heredia and Martin may make the Mariners an intriguing spot for Cespedes. He knows the stadium from his days in Oakland. Jason Heyward probably took a discount to be on a loaded Cubs team. Yoenis Cespedes in a lineup with Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz just might be the most terrifying power threat in the entire league. Maybe Dipoto can convince Cespedes that the Mariners are in the perfect position to make major waves if Yo takes his talents to the Puget Sound.
The truth is this, of the thirteen teams who had larger payrolls than the M's in 2016, nine played a game 163. You already shelled out the money for Cano, for Nellie, too. Moves like Valencia and Ruiz are really slick, the sort of the moves that shore up a roster and hopefully prevent a Dog Days slump, but for this team to make a jump, an infusion of talent like Yoenis Cespedes feels almost necessary. It isn't do or die, but it certainly changes the outlook of the next few years.
Sign Yoenis Cespedes.