Van Wagenen encouraged by Yoenis' progress

December 10th, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- By the time former Mets outfielder Endy Chavez removed the video from Instagram last month, it had circulated far and wide enough for those with a vested interest in Yoenis Céspedes’ progress to see. There was Céspedes, taking his hacks on a back field in Port St. Lucie, Fla. There was Céspedes, providing Mets fans with the first public evidence that his recovery from multiple heel surgeries is not completely stalled.

On Monday, general manager Brodie Van Wagenen revealed that Céspedes has, in fact, done more than just hit. He also recently began a throwing program and, most important, a running program, with an eye toward returning at some point in 2020.

It’s just the last part that Van Wagenen cannot guarantee.

“We’ll have to see how that plays out,” Van Wagenen said, talking more openly about Céspedes than he did last month. “His activity level has increased, which is encouraging.”

With three and a half months until Opening Day, the Mets’ general attitude toward Céspedes appears to be “wait and see.” No one in the front office is relying on Céspedes, who last played in July 2018. The Mets are covered in the outfield with Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil, Jake Marisnick and J.D. Davis, meaning any production from Céspedes -- whether he returns in April or September -- would be a bonus.

One of the primary sparks behind the Mets’ World Series run in 2015, Céspedes hit 17 home runs over a 31-game stretch that August and September, then signed a three-year, $75 million deal to return in 2016. Following another productive year, he opted out, inking a four-year, $110 million deal with a full no-trade clause heading into the 2017 season.

Since that time, he has appeared in only 119 games. He underwent surgeries to remove calcification and bone spurs from both heels in 2018, and he hasn’t played since.

Although Céspedes’ surgeries haven’t completely hamstrung the Mets thanks to an insurance policy, they have nonetheless affected the team’s roster composition. Officials continue to count Céspedes’ contract as part of their payroll, both for practical and luxury-tax reasons, meaning every dollar they spend on him is a dollar they don’t seem likely to reinvest elsewhere.

Chavez’s video, at least, provided the first tangible evidence that the Mets might see some return on that investment.

“We have to be smart and not assume anything from anyone and try to create talent on our roster and try to create impact,” Van Wagenen said. “If he’s at his best, he’s a high-impact performer. We’ll have to see how that plays out.”

Pitching, pitching, pitching

In his first address of the Winter Meetings, Van Wagenen defined the Mets’ agenda as “gain some starting pitching depth, create some bullpen depth.” Although the team will also consider adding a backup infielder or catcher, pitching easily tops the list of priorities.

That, Van Wagenen said, could take several forms. The Mets could guarantee a free agent starter a rotation spot, if they find the right fit. They could sign one or more depth options and ask them to compete with Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman in Spring Training. Or they could focus on adding bullpen depth while committing to Lugo and Gsellman as starters.

“Part of it is going to be what other players are available,” Van Wagenen said. “We have a variety of different ways we could go.”

One option gone

A pitcher who would have fit snugly into the rotation, Zack Wheeler, instead went to the rival Phillies in free agency. Although the Mets had interest in retaining Wheeler, Van Wagenen had his limits; a five-year, $118 million contract was apparently well past them.

“I think the value for what we thought the investment [was] didn’t line up,” he said. “The projections that we had for Zack, both short term and long term, didn’t quite match up to the market he was able to enjoy.”

Essentially, Van Wagenen added, the Mets’ trade for Marcus Stroman in July gave them a ready-made replacement for Wheeler. The Mets are now looking to fill the back end of their rotation behind Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Stroman.

Coaching matters

New bench coach Hensley Meulens arrived at the Winter Meetings on Monday ready to begin the process of advising manager Carlos Beltrán. The two met during the 2006 World Baseball Classic, then bonded during Beltran’s half-season with the Giants in 2011.

“When it comes to Carlos, he’s a great baseball guy,” Meulens said. “He played for a long time and had a lot of knowledge about the game. But the game tends to speed up at times once it stops moving. I think I’ll be a calming presence for him in terms of slowing things down so he can still make the right decisions.”