Are You in It to Win It?

By — on / Dealmaking

For the New York Mets, a deal with outfielder Yoenis Céspedes is all in the timing

Just because a deal isn’t working out in the present doesn’t mean it never will. That’s the key takeaway from a recent contract agreement reached between the New York Mets and star outfielder Yoenis Céspedes this past January.

A temporary impasse

Céspedes, who joined Major League Baseball in 2012 after defecting from Cuba, hit the ground running after the Mets signed him in the middle of the 2015 season, the Wall Street Journal reports. In just 57 games, the power hitter racked up 17 home runs and 44 runs batted in, filling Citi Field and propelling the Mets to their first division title since 2006. But the season ended with unfinished business for the Mets: the team lost the World Series to the Kansas City Royals.

Céspedes became a free agent at the end of the 2015 season, and many expected that the red-hot star would field huge multiyear offers, perhaps in the six-year, $130 million range. The Mets professed publicly that they had little hope of re-signing him. As thrilled as they were with Céspedes’s offensive game, they had concerns about how he’d perform as a full-time center fielder and said point-blank that they would not sign the 30-year-old to a contract that would extend into his mid-30s.

An open position

During the winter dealmaking season, Céspedes faced a crowded field of competitors and didn’t receive the eye-popping offers he had anticipated. The Washington Nationals reportedly offered him a five-year deal that he kept in his back pocket.

The Mets, meanwhile, kept busy revamping their middle infield and bullpen with impressive acquisitions. The team’s recent financial difficulties (related to the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme) had been resolved, and the owners showed a willingness to loosen the purse strings and build on the Mets’ World Series momentum. The team’s management was careful to leave a roster spot open in case they could entice Céspedes to return for the short term, the New York Post reports.

Two “yeses” lead to a deal

In mid-January, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson asked Brodie Van Wagenen, Céspedes’s agent, a crucial question, according to the Journal: “Does Yoenis want to come back to New York?”

Van Wagenen responded with a key question of his own: “Are you in it to win it?” He was referring, of course, to the 2016 World Series.
The answer to both questions was yes.

With these assurances on the table, over the next few days, the two sides negotiated with a spirit of compromise. “Both sides remained committed to keeping an open mind on creative deal structures,” Van Wagenen told the Journal.

Mets management focused on enticing Céspedes to accept a short-term deal. Ultimately, he agreed to a whopping $75 million, three-year contract, the highest annual average value for any free-agent position player that winter. Céspedes would receive a $10 million signing bonus, a $17.5 million salary for his first year, and $23.75 million for each of his final two seasons, in addition to several potential bonuses based on performance.

Céspedes also negotiated a rare opt-out clause from the Mets that would allow him to test the free-agent market again in 2017, when the competition is expected to be thinner than in 2016. Céspedes also negotiated a full no-trade provision—that is, the Mets won’t be able to trade him away without his permission.

The deal created flexibility by allowing the two sides to part ways if their relationship proves unsuccessful, yet both expressed optimism for the long term. “While the opt-out is there,” Van Wagenen told the press, “there’s certainly an eye toward what this relationship could become.”

Lessons from a winning deal

• “It ain’t over till it’s over.” As baseball great Yogi Berra’s famous quote suggests, negotiation, like baseball, is filled with unexpected twists and turns. If talks with a counterpart are going nowhere, leave the door open in case changing conditions make the original deal more attractive.
• Check the other side’s commitment. Before negotiating, Céspedes needed to ensure that the Mets were committed to pursuing a World Series victory. Similarly, the Mets wanted assurance that the player would be happy back in New York. Confirming each other’s level of commitment can be a smart way to build trust before getting down to business.
• Build flexibility into the deal. When one or both sides have concerns about the level of risk they may be facing, they can create flexibility by shortening contract duration and including opt-out clauses.

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