By Brad Kallet
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Mets pitchers and catchers don’t report to spring training until Feb. 13. Position players don’t need to be there until until five days later.
But that didn’t stop Yoenis Cespedes from going to Port St. Lucie on Thursday.
This is an encouraging sign that should comfort and excite fans, management and teammates.
No one has ever questioned Cespedes’ talent, but many, including this writer, have doubted his long-term desire and work ethic. We all know about the golfing, the occasional lapses in judgment and the failure to run on dropped third strikes.
No longer in a walk year and with the security of a four-year, $110 million contract, the immediate questions was whether Cespedes would coast and go through the motions, simply replying on his superhuman ability. His motivation was clearly a concern among executives around the league, as Cespedes struggled to land a long-term deal last offseason and had been traded three times in four years.
Whether or not his decision to come to camp early was calculated, it sends a strong message that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Players don’t report 16 days ahead of time unless they’re committed and ready to get to work, and as one of the leaders of this team, not to mention the most impactful player on the roster, he’s setting the tone for the entire clubhouse.
The Mets need Cespedes not only to hit, which he should have no problem doing, but also to inspire confidence and have his team believing that it can dethrone the favored Nationals in the NL East.
“He’s much more comfortable now with having the multiple-year contract,” the slugger’s translator told SNY in Florida. “It’s something that you didn’t try to demonstrate at all, but in the past it is something that, inevitably, it creeps up into your mind when you’re playing year to year and playing for another contract.
“You’re scared of potentially getting hurt or something like that. But now that he can focus on that, he’s really comfortable. He has his deal in place. He feels much more comfortable with the season coming up.”
Cespedes, a two-time All-Star, didn’t sign until the end of January last year, and when he reported to camp his unexpected return dominated the headlines. Now, with his contract old news — his deal was completed in late November — he should be able to prepare for the upcoming season with less fanfare and media coverage.
Some of that will be up to him, though. If he rides into the parking lot in a new set of wheels each day, or perhaps on a horse, he’ll attract as much attention as before, and the scrutiny and criticism will only intensify. There’s a fine line between enjoyment and ostentatiousness, and it will be interesting to see if the 31-year-old tones down his theatrics a bit later this month.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that, along with Cespedes, starting pitcher Steven Matz and infielder Jose Reyes are also in camp early. Matz is looking to stay on the mound for the duration of 2017 following yet another injury-plagued campaign, and Reyes is getting himself ready to serve as a super utility man, including potential outfield work. It’s great to see them both there.
Juan Lagares On The Block?
According to Mike Puma of the New York Post, teams have expressed interest in trading for the backup center fielder. With Cespedes, Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce firmly entrenched in the outfield — and Michael Conforto waiting in the wings — Lagares won’t get many starts. He does have value as a pinch hitter, pinch runner and late-inning defensive replacement, however.
On a team bereft of speed, Lagares is an asset that manager Terry Collins can use at the end of games when he needs to manufacture a run. And, more importantly, the 27-year-old is a Gold Glover who covers a ton of ground. Granderson isn’t as quick as he once was, and his arm is on the weaker side. In one-run games in the ninth inning, Collins will want Lagares patrolling center.
The knock on Lagares is that he’s injury-prone, has a light bat and isn’t the same fielder that he was in 2014. All of those criticisms are fair, and it’s also worth mentioning that he’s owed $20 million through 2019. (The team has a $9.5 million option for 2020.)
If Lagares is fully healthy, I’d be reluctant to trade such a brilliant defensive player, who’s still very young, for a middling reliever, or even a slightly above-average one. On the other hand, if nagging thumb and shoulder injuries are still hampering him, and a team is willing to take a large portion of his contract, it could make sense for general manager Sandy Alderson to make a move, especially if it will net much-needed bullpen help.
In the end, I’d be surprised if he’s traded.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet