A couple tweets from today:
Yoenis Cespedes has been seeking a 6-year deal in the $22M annual range this winter, said #MLB source.
— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) January 15, 2016
Sources: Cespedes believed to be weighing 5/$90m w/possible option offer from O's vs. one-year deal with Mets and become a free agent again.
— Jesse Sanchez (@JesseSanchezMLB) January 15, 2016
So the offer for Yoenis Cespedes from the Baltimore Orioles is for fewer years and $4 million less per year than he's been seeking. Going back to the New York Mets for a year would seem like a strange bet on his part: Yes, the free-agent market will have less competition next year, but that doesn't mean Cespedes is more likely to get the kind of money he's currently asking for, given he'll be a year older and likely coming off a worse season.
As for the Orioles, they've also been rumored to have discussed a Carlos Gonzalez trade with the Colorado Rockies, with the Orioles balking at Kevin Gausman and instead offering prospects Dylan Bundy or Hunter Harvey, both of whom battled arm injuries last season.
Justin Upton is also still floating out there, presumably more expensive than Cespedes since he's younger and more consistent, but also attached to a draft pick. So if you're the front office of the Orioles, or any other team interested in one of those corner outfielders, you have to weigh your options:
Cespedes will cost you only money.
Gonzalez will cost you $37 million for two years plus prospects to get him.
Upton will cost you money and a draft pick (in the Orioles' case, they would lose their first-round pick).
And that's before getting into the estimated value of each player. In 2015, via Baseball-Reference.com, Cespedes was worth 6.3 WAR, Upton 4.4 WAR and Gonzalez 3.1 WAR. Upton is entering his age-28 season, and the others are entering their age-30 seasons. Can Cespedes put up that kind of season again? Will Gonzalez hit outside of Coors Field? Is Upton worth committing 120-plus million dollars to?
In general, is one approach more favorable? Would you rather have Upton for the most years or Cespedes for fewer or Gonzalez for just two?
We can start by estimating what that draft pick might be worth if you sign Upton. The Orioles are picking 14th in the 2016 draft. According to this 2014 study by Matthew Murphy at The Hardball Times, picks in the 11-15 range have an estimated market value of $31.2 million (as free-agent salaries continue to escalate, that dollar figure would be slightly higher now). So, you have to factor that along with Upton's final signing price. What might you lose? Going back to 1990, the best players selected 14th are Derrek Lee, Cliff Floyd, Jason Varitek and Jason Heyward; most likely, you draft a player who ends up contributing little in the big leagues. It's kind of like Powerball, with better odds of hitting the jackpot.
The Orioles are in win-now mode (leaving aside their actual likelihood to do that), so I think they have to emphasize the player they evaluate to be the best player the next two years, before Adam Jones declines and before Manny Machado may hit free agency. Cespedes is maybe the best gamble in that regard, with the hope he can repeat his monster 2015. Plus, he'll cost less than Upton. Gonzalez can't hit lefties anymore (.211/.233/.333 the past two seasons), and his defense comes with mixed reviews these days. The money outlay is less risky, but there appears to be less upside there. For 2016, I might go Cespedes, Upton, Gonzalez; for ensuing years, I'd take Upton.
In general, however, the win-now approach -- or short-term approach -- will eventually catch up to a team. You can't just keep plugging holes year after year with older players or expensive free agents on short contracts. Sometimes you do hit the lottery in that regard: Case in point, the 2013 Boston Red Sox, who signed a bunch of older guys heading into that season, like Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes. All had good years and the Red Sox won the World Series. But that was followed by two disastrous campaigns -- those guys got old and bad, and the Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval free-agent signings last season didn't work out.
In the same regard, the Detroit Tigers have successfully employed a win-now approach for years, always willing to trade prospects for veterans. It worked until last season, as old free agent Victor Martinez regressed and the pitching staff crumbled, without any reinforcements available on the farm. Now the Tigers have an old core and are trying once more to win with that group. This year, they're trying to plug center field with Cameron Maybin and the rotation with Mike Pelfrey and the bullpen with Francisco Rodriguez. Those are stopgaps, not solutions. Maybe it all works out, like the 2013 Red Sox, but it's possible they're looking to fill the same positions in 2017 ... and 2018 ... and you get the idea. It could be a hard fall for the Tigers. You can't plug forever. Eventually you need young guys to step in or need to sign the free agent who will fill a hole for several years, like Upton.
If you're a team like the Mets, with that young rotation and some other young players to build around, like Michael Conforto and Travis d'Arnaud, signing Cespedes for one year obviously makes sense. You hope he has a big season and then you can give him a qualifying offer and net a compensation pick if he signs elsewhere. Of course, all one-year contracts are essentially a good deal for the team, considering the minimal financial risk.
There's not necessarily a right answer here if you're the Orioles. If they were willing to offer $150 million to Chris Davis, they can seemingly afford Upton. Trading for Gonzalez provides more long-term flexibility -- you know, like having more money to re-sign Machado. But I'd go Cespedes, who seems to be the best balance of all the factors.