You may have suspected it was coming over the past few seasons, but the now it’s official: The Mets and Yankees have switched spots in Baseball New York.
The Mets are the team of Now. The Yankees are the team of Maybe Later.
The re-signing of Yoenis Cespedes for four years and $110 million — and get this, a full no-trade clause and no opt-out provision — tells you that the Mets are the New York ballclub committed to winning now. The Yankees decision to field a team made up of talented but unproven youngsters — next year’s squad is likely to feature four players with a year or less of major-league service time in their everyday lineup — tells you that team of George Steinbrenner, the most impatient owner in the history of sports, is willing to wait.
How’s that for a role reversal?
The most delicious irony of all is that the Mets’ signing of the most attractive free agent in this year’s market comes on the 40th anniversary of Steinbrenner’s signing of Reggie Jackson. The Mets, the little brothers of New York baseball, chose to commemorate the occasion by opening up the checkbook. The Yankees? Just watching. You can’t make this stuff up. Somewhere, The Boss is revolving in agony.
The Mets decision to retain Cespedes is the kind of move many in baseball didn’t believe the Wilpons had the stomach to make and many Mets fans believed they’d never live to see. It is the kind of move the Yankees used to make, routinely.
But those days ended last winter when the Yankees were the only team in Major League Baseball not to sign a major free agent. They may sign one this winter, but in this comparison it no longer matters. It’s only Nov. 29 but already, the Mets have won the winter.
Not only that, but for the first time in recent memory, the highest-profile big-league ballplayer resides in Flushing rather than the Bronx. With all apologies to Gary Sanchez, his resume of 55 major-league games, as impressive as they were, hardly measures up to Cespedes’ five-year resume, or his star power.
Presumably, the Yankees can counter with an impact signing of their own, and the concern for Yankees fans should be that the Mets move will drive them to empty the vaults for Aroldis Chapman, already an overpaid player at an overvalued position. Or they could waste money on the likes of Jose Bautista, who is basically a DH these days, or Edwin Encarnacion, even though they believe they already have their first baseman of the future in Greg Bird.
Cespedes is the player the Yankees should have gone after, but either through complacency or disinterest, they let the Mets steal him away. (You can believe the “Cespedes loves the Mets” narrative all you want, but most players understandably wind up playing for the highest bidder.)
Now, it is the Mets who are built to win right away, and not just in 2017 but for several years to come, since the nucleus of their excellent starting staff will be under team control until at least 2019, when the first of them, Matt Harvey, becomes a free agent. Locking up Cespedes for four years means the Mets will have a big bat in the center of their lineup along with Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndegaard, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler in their rotation, barring trades. Add a big-time closer to replace Jeurys Familia — Chapman, anyone? — and you have the nucleus for a powerhouse team in Flushing.
The Yankees? They are left to hope that Sanchez doesn’t fall victim to the sophomore woes that felled Luis Severino. They must pray that Greg Bird comes back as the player he appeared to be before missing an entire season with a serious shoulder injury, that Tyler Austin develops into a big-league caliber DH and that Aaron Judge stops striking out fully half the time he comes to the plate.
They must hope that Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier swap one P-word — Potential– for another (Performance). And they must that they can cobble together a suitable starting rotation from the likes of Severino, Michael Pineda, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa and Chad Green to go along with Masahiro Tanaka, whose elbow could implode at any time.
For the Yankees, that’s a lot of “if” and precious little “when,” and no one outside the club’s inner circle knows for sure to which principle owner Hal Steinbrenner is more committed: winning, or avoiding having to play into the luxury tax pool. And until the new CBA is nailed down, we don’t even know what that number will be, or if Steinbrenner will insist that the Yankees stay under it.
It all adds up to a team spinning its wheels, at least in the short term, and that is a situation George Steinbrenner never would have tolerated. Once again, it raises the question of whether the Steinbrenner Family’s 40-plus year run is finally coming to an end, and it is time for an infusion of new blood in the Yankee owner’s box.
In fact, if George Steinbrenner were alive today — and don’t you love hearing the ridiculously hypothetical question over and over again? — he would certainly recognize one of the New York baseball teams. But it would not be the one owned by his offspring.
Suddenly, the New York Mets are the team of Today. The New York Yankees are the team of Tomorrow, a day that is guaranteed to none of us.