Should The Tigers Extend Yoenis Cespedes?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

With James Shields off the board, the baseball offseason is essentially over. Pitchers and catchers will show up next week and split squad games won’t be far behind. But before things get into full swing, teams are going to start to look at which of their players they want to lock up long term. Two years ago, the Tigers extended Verlander. A year ago, it was Cabrera. This year, they have a shot to deal with David Price, as we discussed recently, but they might also consider soon to be free agent, Yoenis Cespedes.

Much like previous posts of this nature, we’re going to try to estimate Cespedes’ free agent earnings next winter and then decide if the Tigers should consider paying that price. Keep in mind that Cespedes is ineligible for the qualifying offer, so draft pick compensation is off the table no matter what. This year will be his age 29 season, so you’re buying ages 30+ if you’re offering a deal.

Let’s try to get out bearings a little bit. Nelson Cruz just got 4 years and $58 million going into his age 35 season and his three season platform was worse than Cespedes’ last three years. Let’s assume Cespedes nails down about 3 WAR for the 2015 season, which would leave him well ahead of Cruz.

Pablo Sandoval hit free agency two years younger than Cespedes will, but there’s some similarities in their overall value heading into the payday winter. Sandoval had two 5 WAR seasons prior, however, so it’s not a perfect comparison. He got 5/$95MM.

It probably makes sense that Cespedes will get at least four years and it’s hard to imagine him not getting five. The cut point is probably five to six seasons and the $15 million to $20 million range seems about right. He’s a good defender with some real power, but it’s not like he’s an elite offensive performer. He’ll get the name recognition bump and a little love for RIGHT HANDED POWER, but he’s not going to get Robinson Cano money.

5 years, $95 million? 6 years, $115 million? I think that’s the neighborhood based on recent history. There’s really no way he gets less than Cruz and with another nice year he might wind up in the Sandoval range.

The Tigers don’t have any obvious outfield help blocking Cespedes’ return. JD Martinez’s future is a little uncertain, but even then, Derek Hill is a long way off and Steven Moya isn’t exactly a sure thing either. There’s plenty of room for Cespedes if the Tigers determine that they’re fond of him.

So let’s say that Cespedes will give the Tigers a break a roll his 2015 salary into an extension, leaving them only on the hook for 4/$85 million from 2016-2019. Does that make sense? For $85 million, you’d like to see something like 12 WAR over the life of the deal. That’s three wins per season, which would require a pretty slow decline. It’s plausible, even if you might not call it the likeliest outcome.

But let’s say the Tigers can afford to pay, and are motivated to pay slightly above market rate. Instead of $7.5M/WAR, let’s say they’ll pay $9 million per win. If that’s the case, you just need 9-10 WAR, and that’s a more reasonable projection given normal aging patterns. This assumes Cespedes will sign a deal of that magnitude rather than playing the field and looking for a big spending who digs his power.

The Tigers extended Cabrera back in 2008 before ever seeing him wear the uniform, but the difference between Cabrera and Cespedes is pretty significant. The Tigers pay for stars, but they also really like paying for their stars. Cespedes might not qualify and probably doesn’t have a lot of incentive to sign for below market rate. He’ll have made more than $30 million by the time he hits the market and doesn’t need the security of a big deal right now. Unlike a starting pitcher, the odds of a career altering injury are relatively low for Cespedes and he might try to nab $120 million or so next winter if he socks 35 dingers in the D.

So this becomes a bit of a guessing game. How much of a gambler is the Tigers’ new left fielder? We know that Scherzer made a smart bet on himself and that the Tigers made a bad one on Verlander and Cabrera (financially). While I recommended they extend Price, I think I’m going to come down against ponying up for Cespedes just yet. He’s a quality player, but he’s the kind of guy you can replace for less because he has sexy skills.

It wouldn’t be a disaster to sign Cespedes this month, but I don’t think waiting until next offseason costs them enough to shoulder all of the risk right now.


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