Projection system still puts Washington ahead on paper, even after Cespedes deal
By Andrew Simon
When Yoenis Cespedes reportedly made his long-awaited decision on Friday night, it appeared to shake the National League East. A talented player, whose arrival in New York last summer helped change the division race, had chosen to return to the Mets over an offer from the rival Nationals.
There is little doubt Cespedes will help the Mets in 2016. There is little doubt he would have helped the Nats had he elected to come to D.C. But will the effect of the signing for both clubs actually match the hype?
For Washington fans, New York landing Cespedes (again) was a blow. Although the Nationals did sign former Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, the club also had missed out on other free-agent targets, such as Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. But there is plenty of reason not to despair in the nation's capital.
Even factoring in Cespedes, the Nats project to finish with two more wins than the Mets (88 to 86), according to Steamer. Available at FanGraphs.com, Steamer uses past performance and age to help project future performance. (Obvious disclaimer: The margin for error is high. Example: the 2015 NL East).
Yet Steamer shows that, at least on paper, Cespedes picking the Mets did not hand them the division, nor did it doom the Nationals. Here are a few reasons why.
Regression for Cespedes
After a stellar 102 games with Detroit, Cespedes stayed red hot for most of his time in New York, batting .287/.337/.604 with 17 home runs and 44 RBIs over 57 games. Overall, he produced 6.7 wins above replacement (WAR) according to FanGraphs, ranking seventh among position players.
It would not be wise to expect Cespedes to replicate that type of performance, even if he plays well enough to justify his contract. For its part, Steamer projects Cespedes to bat .259/.305/.464 and be worth 2.7 WAR, which is solid but not among the top 50 hitters in the league.
How can that be? First of all, Cespedes already turned 30. Second, from 2013-14, he posted a .251/.298/.446 line, with averages of 24 homers and 90 RBIs. Dragged down by the low on-base percentage, that works out to a 106 weighted runs created-plus (wRC+), a park-adjusted measure of offensive production in which 100 represents league average.
Cespedes is an extremely talented hitter, but he strikes out quite a bit and rarely walks, a combination with the potential to create some serious slumps. The Mets saw some of that at the end of last season, when Cespedes went 15-for-71 (.211) with four extra-base hits, three walks and 22 strikeouts over his final 20 games, including the playoffs.
And let's not forget about defense. According to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), Cespedes has been 32 runs above average in left over his career, but 17 below average in center, a trend that held up last year. Yet he figures to spend the bulk of his time in center in 2016, a sub-optimal situation that Steamer factored into its projection.
The Mets' solid outfield
Yes, Cespedes makes New York better. But it's not as if the team's outfield was in shambles without him. Curtis Granderson is coming off a strong year in right, Michael Conforto appears ready to hold down left after an impressive showing as a rookie, and Juan Lagares and free-agent acquisition Alejandro De Aza looked like a capable platoon in center.
Before the Cespedes deal, MLB.com columnist Mike Petriello explained why the Mets' outfield would be fine without its 2015 stretch-run star. A big piece of that was optimism about a bounceback year for Lagares, who has more upside with the glove and also got hot with the bat down the stretch.
Now Lagares projects to have a much smaller role, probably playing some center against left-handed pitchers, with Cespedes shifting to left in place of Conforto. It's a more talented outfield than it was a few days ago, but factoring in defense, the relative gain for the Mets may not be as big as some would think.
A logjam in D.C.
It's not hard to understand why the Nationals wanted Cespedes -- or the other players they have targeted this offseason. Coming off a highly disappointing season, Washington has few hitters it can count on, outside of reigning NL Most Valuable Player Award winner Bryce Harper. Cespedes' bat surely would have provided a boost.
But like the Mets, the Nats already had a full outfield without Cespedes. Harper is in right, veteran Jayson Werth is in left, and Washington previously pulled off a trade with Toronto for center fielder Ben Revere. That shifted talented 24-year-old Michael Taylor into a fourth-outfielder role.
The Nationals' exact plans had they landed Cespedes aren't clear. They could have made him the primary center fielder, putting Revere in left or on the bench. They could have made Cespedes the primary left fielder, keeping Revere in center and essentially replacing Werth, a proud and accomplished player who has two years and $42 million remaining on a contract that includes a full no-trade clause. Currently, Steamer projects Werth for 1.2 WAR over 106 games, and Revere for 1.1 over 127.
Of course, the Nats are as aware as anyone that injuries happen, and there is no such thing as too much depth. But at least for now, the club had no ideal place to put Cespedes and might even avoid a headache of sorts because he signed elsewhere.
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.