Yoenis Cespedes isn’t supposed to be a New York Met. At the 2015 trade deadline, Cespedes was Sandy Alderson’s fourth choice for an outfielder acquisition, or thereabouts, after potential deals for Carlos Gomez, Jay Bruce, and Justin Upton all failed to materialize. When Cespedes came to Flushing, it was as a rental leftfielder, and the Mets had just called up their leftfielder of the future one week earlier in Michael Conforto. When Cespedes volunteered to play center instead, it displaced Juan Lagares, who just months earlier had received a four-year, $23 million contract extension. Cespedes was in Queens for August, September, and whatever would exist of October, and at the end he was supposed to go off and become a Dodger or Giant or Ranger or Cardinal.
Something strange happened on the way to free agency for Yoenis Cespedes—he had one of the storybook stretch runs in baseball history, gaining iconic status for a Met fanbase desperate for someone to finally be their guy. Oh, and the Mets made the World Series. Still, most estimates projected Cespedes to garner a free agent contract well into the nine figures, a deal the Mets seemed unwilling to match. As the free agent process wore on, Sandy Alderson derided the fan desire for the Mets to re-sign Cespedes as “populism.” Mets assistant general manager John Ricco called the prospect of a Cespedes return “pretty unlikely.”
Yet here we are, in the second week of the 2016 season, and Yoenis Cespedes roams Citi Field’s vast outfield and hits third every night, in the first year of a three-year contract at the third highest annual salary of any hitter in baseball.
Baseball is a game of patterns. Much of what happens has happened before and will happen again. In trying to keep pace with the loaded Chicago Cubs, the Mets acquired one of the highest paid players in baseball by average annual value, a 30-year-old All-Star who promoted his own “exuberance, intensity and flamboyance.” You might think we’re still talking about Yoenis Cespedes—but this was Gary Carter, circa December 1984.
The Mets traded for Gary Carter after the 1984 season, where they finished 90-72, a distant second behind the Chicago Cubs in the old National League East. Carter brought the Mets a much desired right-handed power bat and strong defensive presence, but he also brought a moribund franchise loaded with young pitching hope that things would coalesce. Almost immediately, Carter was described as the missing link, the piece that would propel the Mets to the pennant—a prophecy that Carter would ultimately fulfill. Like Cespedes, in certain circles Carter was labeled a showboat and even worse; in Montreal, one of his nicknames was “Camera Carter.” His more famous nickname, “The Kid,” was born sarcastically out of Carter’s youthful overenthusiasm. If all of this sounds vaguely familiar to recent baseball, it might be because you’ve listened to talking heads discuss Yoenis Cespedes.
The Mets traded for Gary Carter with five years remaining on a contract the Expos could no longer afford. For two years, Carter continued to perform at a star level, finishing 6th and 3rd in National League MVP voting. His veteran leadership and handling of the pitching staff has been credited as a catalyst for the rise of the Mets to their World Series win in 1986. As injuries and Father Time caught up to Carter, he very quickly was no longer the player the Mets had paid a high price in talent and salary for. Carter hit a combined .238/.295/.376 in 1987 and 1988. His knees went in 1989, limiting him to 50 games, and the Mets parted ways with their co-captain after the season.
Despite only having two good years in a Mets uniform, Gary Carter is one of the most beloved figures in Mets franchise history. Replica Carter jerseys can be spotted frequently at Citi Field, some worn by fans too young to remember him as a player. His number 8, while not yet officially retired, has been out of circulation since Desi Relaford wore it in 2001. Carter even asked to wear a Mets cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.
As Cespedes demolished the National League down the stretch last season, a lot of Mets fans—including myself—decided that the Mets just had to keep him. This was not a rational decision for a sabermetrically-inclined mind. The contract figures being bandied about, in excess of six years and $120 million, were too lofty for the production Cespedes projected to maintain. The wonderful stretch run, and 2015 as a whole, likely represented his absolute peak, numbers he could not maintain over the next five or six seasons. Jason Heyward loomed as a younger, better fit—not that the Mets were thought likely to spend enough to get either.
But if you set aside rational, sabermetric thought, Cespedes was sold as the “reason to believe” for Mets fans. He was the right-handed power bat that marked the end of the bad times that had existed since 2007. Just like they believed in Gary Carter three decades earlier, Mets fans believed in Yoenis Cespedes, and the Mets paid off that belief and reached the World Series with Cespedes leading the charge. That we get to dream about what lies ahead for Yoenis Cespedes and the Mets is a gift. That the Mets extended even to a three-year, $75 million contract with a player opt-out after the first year is a credit to an ownership group that has far too often seemed spendthrift. Already, Cespedes has provided some of the most entertaining off-the-field Mets moments of 2016, from his daily car show in the parking lot of Tradition Field to his morning of horseback riding with Noah Syndergaard to the hog auction at the St. Lucie County Fair.
In honor of the 30th anniversary of the 1986 championship season, throughout the 2016 season, the Mets will wear uniforms in the style of their 1986 home colors on Sundays. You probably know the jersey—it’s the loud one with the racing stripes. This past Sunday, in his first game wearing the style of uniform Gary Carter wore, Yoenis Cespedes launched his first home run of the season. It was a massive shot to left, and it was exactly the kind of homer Gary Carter would’ve hit in the same uniform.
Photo credit: Anthony Gruppuso – USA Today Sports