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Why the Cardinals avoided Yoenis Cespedes

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Yoenis Cespedes signed for just a $75 million guarantee. Did the Cardinals have good reasons to stay away?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The last of the major free agent dominoes finally fell down on Friday as Yoenis Cespedes signed a contract with the New York Mets that guarantees him $75 million over three seasons, provides an opt out after just one season, and pays him $27.5 million if he does indeed opt out after next year. After showing a willingness to pay Jason Heyward nearly three times the total amount, it is fair to wonder where the Cardinals were when Cespedes was taking offers. The average annual value might have been a little high, but Cespedes also comes with considerable risks that the Cardinals tend to avoid.

We do not know what the Nationals offer was, but it appears to have been for around $100 over five years with a decent amount of money deferred that would cut down on the actual value of the contract. While the Mets offer is interesting and what Cespedes ultimately went for based on personal preferences, given the unusual nature, it appears that the offer to beat to make him turn down a return to the Mets was the Nationals offer, as that one was the closest competitor.

The Cardinals certainly could have offered Cespedes $100 million over five years without any deferred money, and that might have been enough for him to take it. While the offer would have been a reasonable one to help the Cardinals in 2016, there are reasons to avoid Cespedes.

When I took a look at Cespedes over at FanGraphs, Cespedes had some really good comps (Jim Rice, Brian Jordan, Sammy Sosa), and some really bad ones (Mike Devereaux, Derek Bell, Jose Guillen). While his incredible 2015 seasons should not be ignored, it is easy to forget that over the past three seasons, Jason Heyward has a higher wRC+ than Cespedes (117 to 116).

The comps put Cespedes' value right around $100 million over a seven-year deal. Assuming a five-year deal, the value drops down to around $90 million. Offering $100 million and an opt out is probably pushing the point where the deal would have been a decent value. Cespedes was seeking well over $100 million, but his past performance has not yet warranted that type of a deal, even after a great 2015 season. I concluded with this:

Cespedes has been an up-and-down player during his brief career, so it should not come as a surprise that he has considerable boom or bust potential as a free agent. If he can maintain his form for just a season or two more, he is likely to justify his contract. If his lack of walks persist and his power drops a bit, a team could regret this signing almost from the get-go. The talent is there, and the production has been fantastic, making him one of the more intriguing free agents available.

The Cardinals public answer to the outfield market has always been that they are confident in what they have, unless the outfielder was a major difference-maker like Jason Heyward. The public answer is fine, and the team has four very talented outfielders in Matt Holliday, Tommy Pham, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty, but it also has a tandem manning first base with projections that are less than average. When it comes to Cespedes, it is more likely that the Cardinals did not feel he was worth the risk.

In his weekly chat, Derrick Goold discussed whether the Cardinals organization was interested in Cespedes:

He just hasn't been an outfielder they've pursued, via trade or in free agency. Not to this point. The reasons range from the cost he'll command vs. the production he'll offer. The Cardinals' internal numbers don't seem to rate him as a good value at the asking price. The inconsistency of his defensive play is also a factor.

At this point, the comps I found, the projections from ZiPS and Steamer, and apparently the Cardinals internal numbers all have him as a player unlikely to be worth $100 million over five years. As for that defense, Cespedes' UZR indicates he has been worth around 37 runs above average over the last 3 seasons in left field, which is very good. However, 21 of those runs come from the arm in left field. It is difficult to say how that would translate into right field.

If Cespedes loses half his arm value, he is all of a sudden very close to average on defense when considering the positional adjustment for a corner outfielder. If there were those worried about Jason Heyward's defensive decline at age-26, then Cespdes' at age-30 should be frightening. Any long term commitment therefore would need to come from his bat.

For 2015, Cespedes' bat was incredible, with 35 home runs and a wRC+ of 135, fairly close to Matt Carpenter's production despite a close to average .323 on-base percentage. Despite all of the concerns regarding consistency and a potential decline in value defensively, Cespedes has the upside to make a big contract worthwhile. The Cardinals have a lot of good players, but they have very few with Cespedes' potential to perform as well as the past history to prove it.

If Cespedes has a solid season in 2016, he will very likely be worth more than $100 million over the life of a five-year contract. The Cardinals are a risk-averse organization, and they have done very well avoiding mistakes, but given the lack of major upside on the current hitting side of the roster Cespedes at five years and $100 million was probably a risk worth taking. We do not know if he would have accepted such an offer given the unusual deal he signed with the Mets, but it likely would have been the best one out there in terms of guaranteed money. The Cardinals are completely justified in avoiding Cespedes based on risk, but that risk now transfers to an offense lacking in elite performers.