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On The Astros: A Cespedes For The Best Of Us

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Will the Astros pursue Yoenis Cespedes? Should they?

MLB: New York Mets Workout
Should the Astros pursue slugger Yoenis Cespedes in the offseason?
The Record-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Marbach (@TheArmoryBand):

Hey Chris, thanks for coming out of semi-retirement to debate with me. I thought we might discuss the pros and cons of the Astros potentially signing Yoenis Cespedes this coming offseason. In a not-terribly-surprising (unless you're a Mets fan, I suppose) move, Cespedes has opted out of his contract in an effort to take advantage of one of the weakest free-agent markets in recent history. But will the Astros sign him?

More pointedly...should they?

Setting The Table

Yoenis Cespedes was, as we both remember, a very highly touted Cuban player who exploded onto the scene with the Oakland Athletics in 2012 as a 26-year-old rookie. In that season, he posted a 136 wRC+ with a .368 wOBA, 23 home runs, and a robust .292/.356/.505 slash line. He then tailed off over the next two seasons quite a bit, with consecutive seasons at 102 and then 110 wRC+, and .318 and .326 wOBA.

Cespedes finally regained some of the form he showed in his rookie season with his third team in two seasons, the Tigers, to start 2015. He posted a 123 wRC+ and a .352 wOBA with 18 home runs and a .293/.323/.506 slash line across 427 plate appearances. Speculation swirled at that time about the Astros possibly trading for him, but he ultimately went to the Mets after the trade between the Mets and the Brewers that would have sent Carlos Gomez to Queens fell apart.

And then Cespedes went crazy. In just 249 plate appearances with the Mets to finish the 2015 regular season, Cespedes posted a 156 wRC+ and a .394 wOBA with another 17 home runs against a .287/.354/.530 slash line. He then cashed in on a big payday in the ensuing offseason by re-signing with the Mets. He followed that this past season by posting a very, very good performance in his age-30 season across 543 plate appearances, notching a 134 wRC+ and a .369 wOBA. He topped thirty home runs (31) for the second straight year and posted a .280/.354/.530 slash line. It's noteworthy that he missed significant time this year with a couple of injuries, the most notable of which was a balky quad muscle that affected him on more than one occasion this season and reportedly necessitate his move from center field to left - though he probably realistically never had any business in center field.

Why The Astros Should Sign Him

There are a couple of intangible reasons for the Astros to consider a Yoenis Cespedes signing, first of all. They may not be the primary motivational factor in either direction, ultimately, but they certainly matter enough to talk about. First, if it's true that the Astros have identified the Cuban scene as a market inefficiency of sorts, as I suggested in the first volume of our Offseason Orbit mailbag last week, then adding Cespedes to the roster along with fellow countryman Yulieski Gurriel (and, hopefully, Lourdes Gurriel at some point) can do a couple of good things. First, it can help with potential clubhouse "fault lines" (there’s a reasonable explanation of this phenomenon here, and as a bonus, it might prompt you to go pick up Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller’s book “The Only Rule Is It Has To Work”), and it can help broaden our appeal as a destination for Cuban beisbol players in the future. Additionally to those considerations, it is surely a marquee free agency acquisition, and those help galvanize the fan base into ticket sales and merchandise sales with the buzz and excitement created. For a team still attempting to shake off the "cheap" designation that they probably don't deserve, it can help in a big way.

There are good, solid baseball reasons to add Cespedes, too.

First and foremost, a quick look at his recent (two year) statistically available performance tells us of the success he's had recently on offense. But let's dive a little deeper, shall we?

When looking at his batted ball profile, a few things stick out. Among all qualified Major League hitters, of which there were 146 in 2016, here are his percentages and ranks for several key categories:

Stats Courtesy of FanGraphs.com

Since two straight seasons topping thirty home runs firmly ensconces him in the "slugger" category, one would normally suspect a hitter like him to pull a huge number of baseballs. And he does pull a fair amount...towards the Crawford Boxes. But his rate of balls hit to center field is much higher, as far as his percentile ranking among all qualified hitters, than his tendency to pull the ball. There is a minor "intangible" caveat to add here - the Astros are removing Tal's Hill this offseason and moving the center field wall in from 436' to 409' from home plate. Many, many Astros fans - myself included - have been very upset by this decision. But if you look at Yoenis Cespedes' batted ball profile, he hits 41.4% of his batted balls in the air, and almost 37% of batted balls to center field. He also has the 17th highest hard contact percentage in the Major Leagues among qualified hitters (more on his exit velocity and other contact metrics in a moment) and all of that puts together an image of a player who, if signed, would likely skew the results of our offense next year with the fences moved in to show more of an improvement, team-wide, and possibly mollify those fans upset over the loss of Tal's Hill a little bit.

Additionally from the above data, it is clear that Cespedes excels at avoiding hitting ground balls, and at hitting the baseball hard. Those are two documented traits considered very valuable in hitters by many forward-thinking front offices...including the front office of the Astros.

So, he hits the ball hard and in the air, and he hits the ball to left and center field 76.2% of the time. The Astros have the Crawford Boxes in left, and a newly-moved in fence in center field to show off to win the fans over. Here's a quick look at longer-term trends from Cespedes in terms of his batted balls, to reinforce the point. From March 2014 to today, three seasons' worth:

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

He's a hitter who can obviously use the whole field, but shows tremendous power and loft to left and center.

Let's move on to checking his place on the StatCast Leader Board provided by Baseball Savant and comparing it to the best offensive players on the Astros (full season - so we're ignoring Bregman and Gurriel, for instance).

Stats Courtesy of BaseballSavant.com

A quick overview of the columns on this chart, since not every reader is familiar with all of these terms. "BBE" means "batted ball events", and that basically means exactly what it sounds like it means. "Balls > 100 mph EV" is also fairly self explanatory. It's not on Baseball Savant's table as its own column though, I had to go into each player's profile and manually count the number of BBE that they had that were 100 mph or greater in exit velocity. The "Avg. EV" is simply average exit velocity, "Avg FB/LD EV" is the average exit velocity of all fly balls and line drives combined (note that I left off the data about ground balls in the interest of providing a little bit more pointed sets of data). "Barrels" are a relatively new stat in the StatCast era which measures balls which are officially classified as "well-struck batted balls with an estimated BA/SLG above .500/1.500" - basically, it attempts to put a label on the most premium type of contact, where the results tend to be really good for the hitter. Brls/BBE is a percentage-based look at how many barrels a hitter gets overall compared to their number of batted ball events, and Brls/PA is a percentage-based look at how many barrels a hitter gets overall compared to their number of plate appearances.

I apologize to anyone reading who already knew those things, just wanted everyone to be on the same page.

So Yoenis Cespedes - who, remember, did miss a significant amount of time this year due to some injuries plaguing him - still had an aggregate total number of batted balls of 100 mph or better that beats Jose Altuve and Evan Gattis. He fell just short of George Springer - who had a lot more plate appearances and more batted ball events from which to draw from than did Cespedes - and he fell well short of Carlos Correa, whose exit velocity has been discussed quite often by baseball pundits since his MLB debut in June 2015. He hits the baseball hard.

You'll likely notice that Cespedes tops all four of the Astros hitters listed both in average exit velocity, and in average exit velocity on balls hit on a line or in the air. He also tied Jose Altuve in total number of barrels, and fell short of Springer's 47, but bested both Carlos Correa and Evan Gattis in barrels this year. And while Springer and Gattis both bested Cespedes in their percentages of batted ball events that were barreled, Cespedes is significantly better than both of those guys at making contact; putting the ball in play:

Courtesy of FanGraphs.com

The Reader's Digest version of that chart is that Cespedes has been around or below league average in K% in four of the last five seasons, while Gattis and Springer have obvious issues with K%. I'm not saying I mind K% so much, just pointing out that a gripe of many Astros fans is that we don't have many hitters that can be counted on to make contact consistently...and Cespedes does that, and he makes hard contact consistently...as evidenced by the fact that Cespedes is better than all four of the Astros on that list in his percentage of balls barreled per plate appearance.

Long story short, the real problem with signing Cespedes is not a baseball one, as far as I can tell, but a financial one...he is going to be expensive.

________________________________________________________________________________

Chris Perry (@CRPerry13):

I love a good statistical-based argument. I won't lie, I feel a bit like a proud parent, seeing you talk about barrel rates and so forth.

Clearly, there is no way to argue that Yoenis Cespedes would not make the Astros a better offensive club than they were last season, and far better than the internal options at present.

Alas, as many have been quick to point out through the years to me, statistical-based arguments are only as good as the common sense that they're founded on. And in this case, though Cespedes is on firm ground in terms of offensive output, terra firma becomes quite mushy and brackish when you look past his fantasy-friendly home run numbers of 2015 and 2016.

Why The Astros Shouldn’t Sign Him

So as not to bury the lede, my argument against signing Cespedes is rooted in the following issues:

1. Cost

2. Mistrust

3. The Astros don't need him

COST

To get the obvious out of the way, Cespedes is going to cost the Astros a lot of money. In 2016, he earned $20 million in salary and signing bonus. In 2017 and 18, he was slated to earn $46M until he opted out of the deal. That move should set off alarm bells. Cespedes and his agent know that he will be the most coveted Free Agent on the market. They also know that Jason Heyward, an inferior batter, managed an average value of $23M per season for eight years last off-season, and they figure they can beat that.

Crazy? Nah. Although Heyward was only 26 years old prior to signing that deal, he was also only a slightly-above-average hitter for a corner outfielder. Cespedes has nearly triple the number of home runs that Heyward totaled for the past three seasons.

Cespedes and his agent will be looking for something like six years, $160 million. More likely, they'll "settle" for a five-year, $130M deal, at about $26M per. Ouch.

Too high? Put yourself in his shoes. He plays in the number one media market in the world in New York, and New York loves him. He will have more endorsement deals, far more than he would save by having no state income tax in Houston. He would be the big man on campus with the Mets, whereas in Houston, he would be number four or five in the hearts of the fans, after Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer, and maybe Lance McCullers. So Houston would have to come up with a serious overpay to lure him away from the city that never sleeps.

And now I'm second-guessing that my $26 million per year figure is too low after typing all of that.

But the pain doesn't end with the sticker shock. Let's say, for funsies, that the Astros land him at five years, $130M. That deal will end in 2021 if there are no player or milestone-based option years. By 2021, the Astros will need to contractually address (one way or another!) Altuve, Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Correa, McCullers, Ken Giles, and they will be possibly staring at post-arbitration contract decisions for Alex Bregman, A.J. Reed, Tyler White, Chris Devenski, Michael Feliz, and David Paulino if they didn't extend them early or trade them away. And that doesn't include players acquired in the meantime.

This season the Astros are projected to shell out $30M in arbitration salaries alone. The Astros will be at $100 million or thereabouts in 2017...without Cespedes and without extensions to core players. Imagine what that figure will look like in 2021. It's not hard to squint and see a 25-man roster payroll that will need to roll over $200 million by 2021. Age 36 Cespedes at $26 million would absolutely cripple the franchise from being able to extend a much younger and presumably better player, because the Houston market just can't support a payroll like that.

MISTRUST

That leads me to my next point. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. That big amazing head-in-lights that is Cespedes' 2016 batting line is setting off alarm bells. How to project a 30-year-old who suddenly walks a career high percentage (by a LOT), matches his career low in strikeouts, exceeds his career BABIP, and is going into Free Agency?

NOOOO thank you.

Cespedes is an impatient batter. He has a career walk rate of under 7%, a number that is (artificially in my mind) bolstered by his 9.4% rate in 2016 and nearly double of what it was in 2015. While it's unfair to say that Cespedes is "Evan Gattis with a higher batting average," the statement isn't as far from the truth as it sounds at first. He was not a good corner outfield bat in 2013 and 2014. His BABIP in 2015 was unsustainable. His walk rate in 2016 was an aberration. Never pay for a career performance after a walk year, but Cespedes and his agent are gambling that a GM will do exactly that.

However, Cespedes' career line of .272/.325/.494 is pretty darn good. But it is not $26-million-per-year-in-his-30's good.

Wait....why does this feel familiar?

Oh yes, because we've seen this show before.

In his own age-30 season, Carlos Lee hit .265/.324/.487 with 32 home runs. That's the same age as Cespedes during 2016. Lee went on in 2007 to sign one of the most regrettable contracts in Astros history. He was a great batter for the first couple of seasons, but then fell off a cliff. He's not a bad comp for Cespedes at all, with one major exception - and you'll probably fact-check me on this because it's going to sound crazy: Carlos Lee was a better player. He walked more, struck out less, consistently hit for more power, and was a better defender in his 20's than Cespedes was.

Let that sink in. You are proposing that the Astros sign a huge contract to a corner outfielder with pitiful defense who is a worse batter than Carlos Lee was at the same points of their careers. [you should pull-quote that statement, hah!]

Which leads to my NEXT point. Cespedes is atrocious in the field. He is one of the worst center fielders of the past five years or so, which limits him to Left Field, realistically. Unfortunately, Cespedes in left field necessitates putting Gurriel, Bregman, or Preston Tucker in right field, while moving Springer to center. (I'm assuming that we can't count on Jake Marisnick or Teoscar Hernandez as regular fixtures, which seems reasonable). So at the exorbitant cost of adding Cespedes, we have significantly downgraded the outfield defense, and have no real major league solution in right field. The problem isn't solved, it's just moved to a different position.

THE ASTROS DON'T NEED HIM

No joke. They don't. The Astros were 8th in the American League in runs scored last season, but that includes five months without Bregman or Gurriel, who are clearly above-average major league batters already, and the most anemic month in recent history in April. With those two fellows, plus a tiny bit of expected growth from Correa and whoever plays first base, it wouldn't take Cespedes to give the Astros one of the best lineups in the major leagues. Why spend that kind of money for a marginal wins gain from scoring more runs when you have larger problems in the rotation?

Furthermore, prospects are prospects are prospects, and are far from guaranteed. But in 2019, I don't want old, expensive Cespedes to be the barricade between the Astros and finding playing time for Kyle Tucker, Derek Fisher, Daz Cameron, Jason Martin, Gilberto Celestino, Ronnie Dawson, Ramon Laureano, Stephen Wrenn, or any other prospects who are signed or break out before then. By saying so, I'm not sacrificing the present at the expense of the future either. As you eloquently argued earlier, "Going all in" would be a mistake because it can preclude growth from within, and there are always other options.

From that standpoint, I'm not suggesting the Astros shouldn't improve their lineup. Rather, if they are not going to trade for an outfielder (the path I would prefer), then I would rather see the Astros sign a shorter deal. Mark Trumbo and Brandon Moss both hit a ton of home runs last season. Josh Reddick should be looking for a rebound contract after all of his injuries. Michael Saunders is going into free agency and might not be receiving a qualifying offer, per reports. Jordan Schafer...(just kidding). Carlos Gomez...(not kidding quite as much, but still kind of kidding). Kendrys Morales plays outfield now, and no worse than Cespedes.

The Astros would be better off sitting back and watching some other team sacrifice their financial integrity by giving Cespedes a record-breaking contract. Then later in the free-agent season, they can nab a Moss, Morales, or Reddick as the dust is settling, and likely with a contract that won't draw-and-quarter their late-decade budget and internal growth opportunities. That would give the Astros 80 to 90% of Cespedes' offensive production, equivalent corner outfield defense, and will probably cost less than half in terms of both dollars and years.

TO SUM UP

You build a great case for why Cespedes would be a thumping stick in the Astros' everyday lineup. But I don't see a convincing case that the cost is worth the benefit, given the other options that will be available this off-season.