Mets needs to lock up Cespedes long-term — no matter the price

Now that Yoenis Cespedes is officially a free agent, exercising his opt-out clause on Saturday, I’m convinced Sandy Alderson is running a misdirection play of sorts designed to camouflage his intention to re-sign the slugging outfielder.

It’s more of a hunch than any concrete information, but my sense is Mets’ people have been a little too willing to put the word out privately that they’re “slow-playing’’ the situation, preparing if Cespedes departs, still wary of giving him a long-term deal.

Yada, yada, yada.

I’m skeptical because I think Alderson is smarter than that. As much as he is philosophically opposed to giving out mega-contracts, I think he knows that circumstances makes this the exception to the rule.

Some of it is timing: the Mets’ window to win a championship is now, with their exceptional starting pitching expected to rebound from various injuries last season.

Then there is the glaring need for Cespedes’ bat in the Mets’ lineup that is otherwise lefthanded-dominant and absent an imposing masher.

Suffice to say Jay Bruce isn’t that guy. And Michael Conforto has a lot to prove after his regression last year.

Meanwhile, the only can’t-miss prospect on the horizon is shortstop Amed Rosario, and he’s not going to fill that slugger-void.

So if Cespedes were to sign somewhere else, Alderson would have to find some righthanded power somewhere.

Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Mark Trumbo are all free agents who qualify, but they all have issues, in terms of age and defense, and they’re all going to cost big money as well.

In short, none of them fit the Mets as well as Cespedes, especially when you factor in the Cuban star’s proven ability to thrive on the big stage in New York.

Finally, Alderson — not to mention Mets’ ownership — certainly understands that Cespedes has a must-see star-quality that makes him hugely popular with fans who, oh by the way, are buying tickets again in big numbers after years of staying away from Citi Field.

And those fans are going to be outraged, and rightly so, if the Mets essentially decide that Cespedes is too expensive to keep.

If Yoenis Cespedes were to sign somewhere else, Sandy Alderson would have to find some righthanded power somewhere.

If Yoenis Cespedes were to sign somewhere else, Sandy Alderson would have to find some righthanded power somewhere.

(Bryan R. Smith)

Yes, Cespedes has his flaws. We’ve been through this before: he’s high-maintenance for Terry Collins, he’s not a great team guy, and all that.

But some guys are simply worth the trouble.

So I’m convinced Alderson has a plan. I think he wants to retain Cespedes while winning the negotiation, at least to some degree, which essentially means not bidding against himself.

That is, he wants proof that other teams are more willing to throw big money at Cespedes than last winter, when, like the Mets, they apparently feared that a long-term deal would affect his day-to-day effort level.

There’s risk in taking that approach, obviously, but Alderson may have a comfort level for a couple of reasons: he believes Cespedes wants to stay with Mets, and he has a strong working relationship with agent Brodie Van Wagenen, who, wink-wink, also happens to represent Tim Tebow.

That combination may not get Alderson a discount of any kind, but it could allow him to monitor Cespedes’ market with some assurance that he’ll have the opportunity to respond if there are other offers.

All in all, it’s a smart approach if it works, as it did last winter when Cespedes didn’t get the offers he expected, and the Mets were able to re-sign him by putting huge money up front — paying him $27.5 million in 2016 as part of a three-year, $75 million deal with the opt-out he is now exercising.

But this free-agent market is much thinner, with none of the front-line starting pitching that teams spent on last winter.

Cespedes, meanwhile, enhanced his value with another strong season, and baseball people feel he’ll be a lot less likely to sign another short-term deal at age 31.

As for potential landing spots, the Giants make a lot of sense, but they spent big in free agency last winter, and they desperately need to address their bullpen.

Otherwise, there aren’t many obvious fits, but as always, it only takes one frustrated owner, looking to make a splash, to change everything. The Phillies? The Angels? The Marlins? The White Sox?

If some team offers Cespedes a five-year, $120 million deal, Alderson’s passive approach probably backfires on him.

Joe Maddon is very lucky the Cubs rallied to win.

Joe Maddon is very lucky the Cubs rallied to win.

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Or maybe at that point he and the Wilpons simply dig deep to keep Cespedes, realizing that sometimes overpaying for the right player is the price a New York franchise should be willing to pay for trying to win a championship.

As Alderson begins his seventh year as GM, the Mets are at that point. I’m convinced he knows it.

But we’ll see if he delivers on it.

WHAT COULD’VE BEEN

Wow, Game 7: a spectacular night for baseball, fun to cover, but also another reminder that all managers make bad in-game decisions from time to time.

Between over-using Aroldis Chapman prior to Game 7 and pulling Kyle Hendricks too early on Wednesday night, in fact, Joe Maddon is lucky the Cubs rallied to win or he would have been blamed for extending the 108-year drought.

In the press box you don’t always get the best read on a pitcher, so when I got home I watched some of the recorded telecast on FOX. It only confirmed that Hendricks was cruising, his off-speed stuff getting sharper after a shaky start.

And John Smoltz was all over it, saying Hendricks was “in rhythm now’’ and essentially warning ahead of time that Maddon was making a mistake if he pulled him for Jon Lester.

Not that Lester pitched poorly, but his unwillingness to even attempt to field Jason Kipnis’ dribbler, because he has that phobia about throwing to first base, eventually led to two runs for the Indians.

“Maddon should have trusted what he was seeing in Hendricks but I think he was influenced by analytics,’’ a major-league scout told me Friday. “I’m sure the numbers told him that Hendricks was far more vulnerable the third time around the lineup, and he probably pre-planned that to some extent. That’s the trend now in the game.

“But there are times when the performance has to take priority to the analytics. That’s when you want your manager to have the guts to make that call.”

As for Chapman, Maddon simply pushed him too far, and needlessly so, with a 7-2 lead in Game 6. Not having another pitcher ready to begin the ninth inning of that game, after Anthony Rizzo’s home run made it 9-2, was a major mistake.

In any case, as a closer who had been a three-out guy throughout his career, Chapman simply wasn’t trained to throw 90-plus pitches in three games over four days, and it caught up with him in Game 7.

Theo Epstein, the Chicago Cubs’ president of baseball operations, has to go down as the greatest executive in baseball history.

Theo Epstein, the Chicago Cubs’ president of baseball operations, has to go down as the greatest executive in baseball history.

(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As it was, Maddon was fortunate Chapman survived the ninth inning of Game 7, coming back out to pitch after giving up the lead in the eighth. Watching the TV replay, he was hanging sliders all over place, having to adapt to pitching without his good fastball, but got away with them, probably because hitters still feared his 100 mph velocity.

SAY HEY

Oh, the irony of Jason Heyward delivering that uplifting speech during the rain delay in Game 7, which Cubs’ players credited for pulling them out of their we-just-blew-the-World Series funk in time to rally in the 10th inning.

Heyward, of course, is the darling of the analytics world, and so far the one major mistake by Theo Epstein in Chicago, giving him an eight-year, $184 million contract last winter for his ballyhooed baserunning and defense, in addition to a rather suspect bat.

As it turned out, Heyward had a terrible offensive season, even getting benched in the post-season.

Yet he rallied his teammates at a crucial time, providing the type of intangible that a lot of analytic proponents insist are insignificant or even meaningless.

LUCKY NUMBER

So as I wrote about Theo Epstein a couple of days ago, the Cubs’ president of baseball operations has to go down as the greatest executive in baseball history, at least for on-field accomplishments, after breaking the two most famous curses in sports.

But when did he know it was the Cubs’ year?

In his column after the World Series, Peter Gammons told a great little story about that. As a friend of Epstein’s and a fellow amateur musician, Gammons wrote about a benefit concert they played together in January, along with some major-league players, for kids at Boston’s West End House.

At some point all of the players and musicians picked tickets out of a basket with numbers corresponding to tickets the kids had, and the winners got prizes.

“Theo went to the front,’’ Gammons wrote, “picked out his ticket, looked at it and laughed. Then read it aloud:

“1908.”

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Source: NY Daily News Headlines Sports News

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