News broke on Tuesday that Yoenis Céspedes had reportedly signed a four-year, $110 million contract to remain with the Mets. It seems very likely to be the highest free-agent contract we'll see this offseason, but there's a good case to be made that the best free agent might not actually end up with the largest deal. That's because Justin Turner is almost certainly not getting a deal that large -- and he just might be a better option.
We say that because according to free-agent lists ordered based upon 2017 projection systems, like those here at MLB.com and at FanGraphs, it hasn't been Cespedes' name atop the list. It's been Turner. Is it actually possible that a 32-year-old infielder coming off his first big league season as a full-fledged starter is the game's best available free agent?
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Consider the alternatives. Other than Cespedes before he signed, Edwin Encarnacion is also available, and all he's done is hit more homers over the past five seasons (193) than every player in the game except Chris Davis (197). But then there's Turner. As FanGraphs' Dave Cameron said when he listed Turner as the best potential free-agent bargain this offseason: "Turner looks like this year's Ben Zobrist: a good player who will get underpriced because he doesn't feel as good as he actually is."
Inasmuch as there's such a thing as consensus in free-agent rankings, the prevailing wisdom is to list Cespedes, Encarnacion, and Turner in some order as baseball's best available free-agent hitters. Let's take a look at what those aforementioned projection systems have to say about 2017 for each of those three players:
Steamer 2017 Projections
Turner: 3.6 WAR
Cespedes: 3.2 WAR
Encarnacion: 2.4 WAR
WARcel 2017 Projections
Turner: 3.5 WAR
Cespedes: 3.2 WAR
Encarnacion: 3.2 WAR
As far as these projection systems are concerned, there's no debate who the cream of the crop is in this free-agent class: Turner. Why, then, is Cespedes the most-oft cited king of the field?
There are two big reasons. First, and most importantly, Cespedes has a more established track record than Turner. Ever since reaching the Majors in 2012, Cespedes has been a regular, whereas Turner toiled as a utility infielder for years before finally securing his spot in the everyday lineup with the Dodgers in 2015. The other reason is that Cespedes is younger which, while undeniably true, is arguably an overstated consideration given that the age difference between the two is less than a year. So is conventional wisdom picking up on context that the projection systems are missing, or should Turner actually be king?
Before jumping into Cespedes vs. Turner, let's step back and start with Encarnacion vs. Turner. When Turner joined the Dodgers prior to the 2014 season, his career began to turn around. He made adjustments to his swing and slowly shed his former reputation as a part-time utility infielder to emerge as the player he is today. Over the past three seasons, Turner has posted a terrific .296/.364/.492 slash line and a well-above-average 138 Weighted Runs Created Plus. Over the same time period, however, Encarnacion has hit .269/.361/.544 for a 144 wRC+ in nearly 500 more plate appearances.
All other things being equal, Encarnacion would clearly be the more attractive free agent, but of course all other things are not equal. Encarnacion, who will turn 34 in January, is nearly two years older than Turner and is already at the point in his career where he offers no defensive value due to his status as a first baseman/designated hitter. Also, while Encarnacion's biggest advantage over Turner has been his power, that gap is closing. Turner has been consistently hitting for more power over the past three seasons:
It's always worth noting that Encarnacion may hold more value to an individual team if that team is set at every position except designated hitter, but in a vacuum, Turner is clearly the more valuable free agent.
The Turner/Cespedes debate is a bit less clear, though. Both players have made tremendous steps forward over the past few seasons -- Turner with his power surge and success in his new starting role, and Cespedes with a power surge of his own as well as a boost in walk rate. Over the past three seasons as a whole, however, there's little question as to who has been the more productive big leaguer: it's Turner.
While Turner posted his 138 wRC+ line, Cespedes has hit .277/.326/.506 for a 126 wRC+ of his own. Add in the fact that Turner has posted real defensive value at third base while Cespedes has been an inconsistent defender in the outfield (though that likely gets solved assuming the Mets keep him in left rather than center), and Turner clearly appears to have been the better player over that stretch -- although, again, with the caveat that Cespedes has recorded nearly 500 more plate appearances.
The big questions, then, are these. One: whose improvements do you believe are more sustainable going forward? And two: who's at greater risk for an age-induced performance decline?
Given the increase in home runs across the league and accounting for their personal strengths (Cespedes his pure physical strength, Turner his reworked swing), I'm inclined to believe that the power increases for both players are sustainable going forward. The steps Turner has taken to establish himself as an everyday player are similarly convincing. The one improvement I expect to see regress back toward previous career norms going forward is Cespedes' new heightened walk rate. As for age-induced decline? The risks are similar enough for both players that I don't see how one has a leg up on the other.
So to which player do you offer a four- or five-year contract? The power-hitting corner outfielder with the more established track record? Or the slightly more well-rounded corner infielder who is -- and I really must stress this one more time -- coming of his first full season as a Major League starter with at least 500 plate appearances? There isn't a right answer, but there is personal preference and, for me, as crazy as it feels to say, I'm taking the red-headed former Dodger ... and the fact that his price tag will likely be cheaper than Cespedes' is just the cherry on top.
A version of this article first appeared at FanGraphs.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.