The Mets and Yoenis Cespedes rejigger their contract

It’s easy to forget now, but once upon a time Yoenis Cespedes was considered a bust for reasons other than his injuries. The original YouTube sensation, after an otherworldly rookie year in 2012 (135 wRC+ and 4 fWAR), Cespedes slumped to just .251/.298/.446 between 2013 and 2014, leading many prognosticators to wonder if the Cuban emigree wasn’t actually destined to be a star after all.

Cespedes rebounded in 2015 with the Mets, turning into a bona fide six-win monster and carrying the team to an unlikely World Series berth, and his 2016 (.280/.354/.530, 136 wRC+, 31 homers in just 132 games) was enough to convince the Mets that he deserved a long-term commitment. The team signed him to a four-year, $110 million deal through 2020. (Apropos of nothing, I’ve wondered for a while if Cespedes’ career path – rookie sensation, then lost years, followed by a monstrous breakout, is a peek into the future of Yasiel Puig, but that’s another article).

At first, that deal looked like a steal for the Mets; although Cespedes played in just 81 games, his rate stats (.292/.352/.540, 131 wRC+) were almost exactly in line with the season before. The problem was that Cespedes’ injury woes were just beginning: in 2018, he played just 38 games and was a far cry from his MVP-caliber numbers. Cespedes’ entire Mets career was plagued by lower body injuries that ruined his stint with the team post-2016, and so when he suffered yet another injury that torpedoed his 2019 season in its entirety, it was unfortunately unsurprising.

Outfielder Yoenis Céspedes, who has been out of action for over a year now — save for a one-game cameo last July 20 — seemingly will take quite a while longer to return to the field after suffering an embarrassing off-the-field injury. Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen announced to the media on Monday afternoon (during a press conference that was scheduled to re-affirm his faith in his beleaguered manager) that Cespedes suffered multiple fractures in his right ankle during an accident at his ranch in Florida.

Given Cespedes was supposed to be rehabbing from a bilateral heel surgery at the time, the injury was rather embarrassing for team and player alike. I discussed the potential repercussions of the injury back in June, in the context of a dispute between the NFL’s Seattle Seahwaks and Malik MacDowell over a non-football-related injury.

One fascinating McDowell analogue might be New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. The Mets’ slugger, already out for an extended period after surgery for bone spurs in both feet, broke his right ankle in several places during what General Manager (and Cespedes’ former agent) Brodie Van Wagenen insisted was not a fall off of a horse, but was nonetheless a “non-baseball-related activity” at the outfielder’s ranch. (The official explanation was that Cespedes stepped in a hole on his ranch and suffered a “violent fall.”) Ranching is probably not a contractually acceptable in-season activity for a baseball player who is supposed to be rehabbing from surgery, and that led to Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann considering if the Mets had legal grounds to void the outfielder’s contract. And McCann is probably correct: if Cespedes’ injury really was an accident, there’s probably not much they can do. But if Cespedes was digging the hole (as opposed to accidentally stepping into it) or riding a horse (despite his and the team’s denials), there’s not much that is legally different between his situation and [that] of Malik McDowell . . . .

As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened. Per the Associated Press:

New York withheld part of Céspedes’ salary, alleging he was hurt during an activity prohibited by his contract’s guarantee language. The players’ association filed a grievance, and the sides settled on an amended contract before the case was argued.

As part of the new deal agreed to Dec. 13, Céspedes’ 2019 pay was cut from $29 million to $22.9 million. Information sent to teams this year listed his pay as $14.8 million, so the amended contract appears to indicate he is receiving about $8 million more for this year than the Mets originally paid.

If Céspedes doesn’t start next season on the injured list because of a right foot or ankle injury tied to his May 18 injury, his base salary would escalate to $11 million. His base pay would rise to $11 million as soon as he is on the active roster or on the IL for a non-related injury.

That deal also cut Cespedes’ 2020 base salary to just $6 million – about 20% of its original value. In fact, given that Cespeds’ deal with the Mets was heavily back-loaded, unless Cespedes is healthy and on the Mets’ roster for the full 2020 season, he could end up losing over $30 million off the original deal.

At first blush, it seems rather remarkably that the MLBPA would agree to a deal in which a player essentially loses as much as a full third of a nine-figure contract. At the same time, the deal suggests that the MLBPA wasn’t at all confident it could win the grievance. You see, every MLB player contract includes language prohibiting a player from engaging in any sport “involving a substantial risk of personal injury.” It’s why two-sport athletes are so rare in professional leagues these days.

Legally speaking, a breach of a contract excuses future performance by the non-breaching party; that is, a baseball team can terminate a contract if the player gets hurt engaging in a prohibited activity. That’s what happened to Aaron Boone back in 2003; the Yankees’ then-third baseman played basketball, which was prohibited by his contract, and tore his ACL in the process. The team voided his contract, and replaced Boone with some guy named Alex Rodriguez.

If Cespedes was engaged in prohibited conduct under the contract, especially whilst he was supposed to be rehabbing, then he breached his contract—full stop. The MLBPA could argue that ranching wasn’t a “sport,” but it’s hard to argue that it didn’t carry a fairly significant risk of personal injury, especially if he was supposed to be rehabbing from surgery. Moreover, several teams add riders [addenda] which list additional prohibited activities.

In other words, based on what we know about how Cespedes was injured, it’s not at all surprising that the settlement of this case ended up being relatively favorable for the Mets. Whether or not that contract clause should be present is a different story; it’s hard (though not impossible) to imagine an arbitrator ruling in Cespedes’ favor on this, and the final numbers on the agreement reflected those odds.

For his part, Cespedes predicts he will play in 140 games and hit 52 home runs, despite being ostensibly blocked at both corner outfield positions by Brandon Nimmo and Michael Conforto. Of course, if Cespedes does meet his predictions, the team will surely make room for him. It’s more likely, however, that if Cespedes shows he’s healthy in Spring Training, he’s moved to an American League team with a Designated Hitter role; several teams have evidently already expressed interest.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and Legal Director at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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