Céspedes is baseball’s biggest ‘if’ right now

March 10th, 2020

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Mets coach Gary DiSarcina was standing around the corner from where the team bus was still idling behind the right-field stands at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. It was another Spring Training bus that did not have on it. In an hour, the Mets would play the Astros in a Spring Training game that would not have Céspedes in it. So this is another baseball spring during which Céspedes has not been on the field. Yet.

Céspedes was at the Mets’ complex in Port St. Lucie. He has been hitting up there, mostly in private. He has, according to reports, started running to first base. There is the feeling around the Mets that Céspedes could actually be on the field sooner rather than later, and before Opening Day on March 26.

I asked DiSarcina how Céspedes is doing, and he said he's working his tail off.

This is what Brodie Van Wagenen, who was Céspedes’ agent when he signed a four-year, $110 million contract after the 2016 season and is now the Mets’ general manager, said about Céspedes on Tuesday:

“We don’t have any timeline for when Yoenis will be ready. We’re focused on his work each day and progressing accordingly.”

It has pretty much been the Mets' official position on Céspedes every day of Spring Training, as he continues to recover from the right ankle surgery that ended up costing him last season. (When he fractured the ankle on his Port St. Lucie ranch last May, he was still rehabbing from surgery on both of his heels the previous winter.) The last time Céspedes played was in July 2018, a Subway Series game against the Yankees in which he went 2-for-4, scored two runs and hit a solo home run. When you can get him on the field, that is what he does. He hits. And he hits home runs. Even if it has been awhile. But it’s not as if anybody has forgotten the way Céspedes can hit.

DiSarcina was a coach with the Angels in 2014, when Céspedes started the season with the A’s before being traded to the Red Sox. By the time the trade was made, DiSarcina had seen enough of Céspedes in the American League West.

“First time I saw him this spring I shook his hand and said, ‘Thank you,’” DiSarcina said.

“For what?” Céspedes said.

“Because when you got traded in ’14, I knew we were going to win the division,” DiSarcina said.

A year later, after the Red Sox traded Céspedes to the Tigers for Rick Porcello, then-Mets GM Sandy Alderson made the trade that brought Céspedes to Citi Field, where he proceeded to have one of the most important half-seasons in the history of the club -- finally swinging it all the way into the World Series against the Royals. After Céspedes joined the Mets in July, there was no more valuable player, in either league, than he was. There was no bigger reason why the Mets ended up playing in only the fifth World Series in the team’s history.

Now Céspedes hasn’t played in nearly two full years. Even with the progress being reported, there is no bigger mystery in Spring Training than Céspedes -- how much he might have left, when he might play again, if he plays again. He just keeps working hard in Port St. Lucie, and tries to get himself right once and for all, and tries to get back on the field. Because if he does -- and Céspedes really is "The Great If" in baseball right now, in Florida or Arizona -- he can be a game changer in the National League East, which might be as crowded at the top this season as a No. 7 subway train taking Mets fans to their ballpark in Queens.

Mets fans remember what Céspedes did when he was first a game-changer for them in 2015, putting them back in the Fall Classic for the first time in 15 years. On my way into the ballpark on Tuesday, I saw a Mets fan wearing a T-shirt that read this way on the front: “The East is Ours. 2015.” Not just the East. The Mets went on to beat the Dodgers in five games and swept the Cubs in four, at which point the National League was theirs. None of that happens without Céspedes, whose stats that year in 57 games (17 homers, 44 RBIs, .280, .942 OPS) don’t begin to tell the full story of his impact on the team.

“Big power,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who had a front-row seat to how Céspedes changed that season in the NL East, said on Tuesday. Then Rizzo added, “Had his legs then.”

The Mets needed somebody like Céspedes then. They need somebody like him now, with Michael Conforto up in New York for an MRI after injuring his side reaching over the fence on Saturday. Conforto hit 33 homers last season and knocked in 92 runs and provided tremendous coverage for Pete Alonso in the Mets’ batting order.

The ranch where Céspedes’ ankle injury occurred is called La Potencia. The Power. When the Mets got power from him, they made the World Series and got to the NL Wild Card Game the next year against Madison Bumgarner and the Giants. They have waited a powerful long time for him to bring it back. Still waiting for the bus.