To get Yoenis Cespedes in 2015, the New York Mets had to give up the guy who will probably be the American League‘s Rookie of the Year (Michael Fulmer). To keep Cespedes in 2016, the Mets had to offer him a three-year contract that also allowed him to make $27.5 million in one year and become a free agent.

The first price was high. The second price might have been higher.

The price for 2017 and beyond will almost certainly be higher still.

And what about the price if they allow him to walk away? That could be the highest price of all.

“They’re going to keep him,” an American League scout who closely follows the Mets said Wednesday.

Yes, I told him, I understand. The idea here is to come up with a plan for what to do if they don’t.

“They’re going to sign him,” he repeated, not with the confidence of owning inside information but simply with the belief in what makes sense.

I get it, and I get why general manager Sandy Alderson told reporters (including Adam Rubin of he wants an answer to the Cespedes question before the Dec. 5-8 winter meetings. As well as waiting worked out for the Mets last winter—they re-signed Cespedes January 26 after he found the market softer than expected—waiting would be a bad strategy this time around.

Cespedes felt like more of luxury a year ago, when the Mets were coming off a World Series. He feels like more of a necessity this time, although that mainly means if he does leave, there’s a real necessity to find someone to fill his spot.

Quite simply, if the Mets’ pitching gets healthy and Cespedes returns to the lineup, this team would have a chance to return to the World Series. With no Cespedes and no ready replacement, the Mets might not have enough offense to even return to the postseason.

They were barely a .500 team when he showed up in 2015 before going on a 38-22 run that began the day of the trade. They were 72-52 with Cespedes in the lineup in 2016 and just 15-21 in games he didn’t start.

He drove in 24 more runs than anyone else on the roster and was 24 times the offensive presence of anyone else they could put in the middle of the lineup.

There’s more.

“Say what you want about Cespedes, he has charisma,” the scout said. “Nobody else on that team has it.”

No position players, anyway.

Still, that hardly means the Mets will sign him at any price. That hardly means they should sign him at any price.

So we’re back at the original question of how to replace him if he leaves, with the caveat that this time, the answer can’t be there’s no way they can let him leave.

The easiest way would be to sign another free agent instead, and James Wagner of the New York Times tweeted from the general managers’ meetings about one possibility:

Jose Bautista makes some sense, especially since Mets executive J.P. Ricciardi traded for him as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. He has power, and he’s right-handed—an important consideration for a Mets team that leans lefty.

He’s also 36, trending down and still hoping for a big contract.

Edwin Encarnacion, Bautista’s Blue Jays teammate, is also a free agent. But he fits best at first base, which would require the Mets giving up on Lucas Duda, or at designated hitter, which would require them moving to the American League.

The trade market might be a better answer, even though it would require Alderson to do something he has so far resisted: trading one of his big starting pitchers. Trading a pitcher this winter would be complicated, because the Mets wouldn’t deal Noah Syndergaard, and every other top starter they have will be recovering from some kind of surgery.

Trading Matt Harvey would make the most sense. He has two years left before free agency, and the Mets fully expect him to leave. His health is a factor, though. Harvey’s surgery was to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, and while he’s said to be making a full recovery, it’s unclear how confident other teams will be that he comes all the way back.

The Mets would prefer to keep Jacob deGrom, who underwent surgery in September to address an ulnar nerve issue. But teams would likely view him as a safer bet to come back strong, so he could be a more likely choice to net them the type of hitter they need.

Who would that be? It’s always hard to read the trade market this early in the offseason, with only suggestions about who is available and how much the teams would want in return.

To truly replace Cespedes, the Mets must think big, which means asking about players like Andrew McCutchen and Miguel Cabrera. And that means being open to trading not just Harvey or deGrom, but also top prospect Amed Rosario.

McCutchen is coming off his worst season, and he’s eligible for free agency after next season. Position-wise, though, he’s the best fit, because he can play center field. Cabrera plays first base, turns 34 in April and has a huge contract that runs until he’s 40, with a full no-trade clause. But he might be the biggest lineup-changer in baseball.

McCutchen’s Pittsburgh Pirates and Cabrera’s Detroit Tigers both seem open to listening to trade offers this winter. It’s still hard to know how willing the Tigers would be to moving Cabrera; they could also deal outfielder J.D. Martinez, who could be of interest but is not in Cabrera’s class as a lineup force.

Ryan Braun could be a more realistic option, but the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers would likely want mostly young players in return. Rival scouts who follow the Mets’ farm system say there’s not much of great value beyond Rosario, although 23-year-old Robert Gsellman’s 2016 big league debut could make him attractive.

If they’re willing to offer Harvey and/or deGrom, the Mets may have plenty of options on a winter market devoid of top free-agent starting pitchers. Either one could be a fit for teams like the Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox, all of which have deep lineups.

Alderson’s reticence to trade a starter is understandable, because the Mets rely so heavily on their pitching. They’ll go to spring training with some concerns about Harvey and deGrom, but also about Steven Matz (who had shoulder issues and surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow) and Zack Wheeler (still recovering from a 2014 Tommy John surgery).

“If they keep the pitching healthy, they might be able to win a lot of games 2-1,” a National League scout said.

If they don’t re-sign Cespedes or find an adequate replacement, they might need to win all their games 2-1. But how do they replace him?

“They’re going to keep him,” the first scout predicted again.

When you look at the alternatives, it’s easy to understand why they should.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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