Fortunately for the Cardinals, Matt Carpenter is not a free agent. Based on service time, Carpenter would have been eligible for free agency after next season. However, the Cardinals locked Carpenter into a team friendly contract that will guarantee him just under $40 million over the next three years with an extra $16.5 million for an option in 2020. Carpenter is not a free agent, but if he were, what kind of contract would you give him? Whatever the answer to that question is close to the same amount that the Cardinals should offer to Yoenis Cespedes, because they are very similar players.
While the answer is now obvious, I posed the following riddle, if you want to call it that, on my twitter account over the weekend.
2016— Craig Edwards (@craigjedwards) November 5, 2016
Player A: 566 PA, .271/.380/.505, 135 wRC+, 3.2 WAR
Player B: 543 PA, .280/.354/.530, 135 wRC+, 3.2 WAR
Both were 30 years old in 2016.
Player A is Matt Carpenter and Player B is Yoenis Cespedes. We can go back further as well. Since 2015, Carpenter has a 137 wRC+ and Cespedes has a 135 wRC+ with Carpenter’s WAR total of 8.3 a bit behind Cespedes’ 9.9. Want to go back three years? It’s 130 wRC+ for Carpenter and 126 for Cespedes with Cespedes at 13.2 WAR versus Carpenter’s 12.3 number. As for projections, Steamer projects both players to be worth roughly 3.0 WAR per 600 plate appearances next season.
It’s possible you have heard that Cespedes’ defense is terrible and question how that defense could make him slightly more valuable than Carpenter. Yoenis Cespedes isn’t actually a bad fielder. He is probably a bad center fielder, but in a corner, he has graded very well and has a great arm. Over the last three seasons, even including numbers compiled in center field, Cespedes has put together a plus-18 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and 17 UZR.
It’s possible you have also heard that Cespedes is lazy and that he takes plays off. Consider that Cespedes has been an above average base-runner and defender throughout his career, and if he is lazy, the numbers suggest that a lazy Cespedes is just as good as a not-lazy Matt Carpenter.
While Cespedes is known for his power and a free swing, he improved his walk rate last season while maintaining that power and keeping a decent strikeout rate. As for where he would fit on the Cardinals, there is an obvious fit as the Cardinals refused to exercise the option on Matt Holliday and didn’t make a qualifying offer to Brandon Moss.
The Cardinals have a stated goal of improving outfield defense, and while keeping Randal Grichuk in center field and putting Cespedes in right field would improve the Cardinals defense while providing offensive numbers better than this past season. Outside of adding a defensive specialist through trade like Ender Inciarte or Kevin Kiermaier, there aren’t really other options that would make the Cardinals better defensively, including Dexter Fowler or Charlie Blackmon.
All that said, Cespedes is unlikely to be a wise investment on the free agent market. He will be 31 next year, he does not play a premium defensive position, we’ve seen his best season already, and he is likely to get worse as his contract goes along. All of those things also apply to Matt Carpenter, who seems likely to take over the Cardinals first base job this season.
I’m not really a proponent of signing Cespedes to a $100 million contract, but if Matt Carpenter were a free agent I’m not sure I’d do the same for him, either. Free agency is a an arena filled with bad bets and Cespedes is among those. His contract last season turned out to be a solid value for the Mets despite some time with injuries. He’s like to provide decent value for the first two years of a contract before being around value for a third year, below value for a fourth, and well-below value in a fifth season.
I think somewhere under $100 million would be a good value for Cespedes, but this is more of a thought exercise. Think about what you might offer for Matt Carpenter if he were a free agent right now. Both Cespedes and Carpenter would effectively cost a draft pick so that shouldn’t factor in to the analysis.
How much would you pay to keep Matt Carpenter with the Cardinals? There’s some sentimentality there, of course, but from a baseball perspective, whatever that amount is should be substantially similar to what you should want the Cardinals to pay for Yoenis Cespedes.