Cespedes at center of Mets' success

Coming off a 31-homer campaign, slugger still has high expectations

Cespedes at center of Mets' success

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Mets squad each day this week. Today's topic: How's your star?

NEW YORK -- Early this offseason, the Mets scanned the free-agent and trade markets for outfielders and made a decision. This time, they were not going to pursue any second-tier choices. They were not even going to play coy with Yoenis Cespedes, as they did a year ago before ultimately re-signing him.

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Instead, the Mets were going to write a love letter to Cespedes, stopping at nothing until he was back in Flushing.

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So it came to be that before November ended, the Mets were holding an introductory press conference for their brightest star. Though this team may be built around starting pitching, and will go only as far as its rotation carries it, Cespedes is nonetheless the franchise's unquestioned most electric player. When his agents were negotiating Cespedes' four-year, $110-million contract, they put together a package of New York tabloid back pages featuring his likeness. They understood Cespedes' star power in the league's largest media market.

The Mets, too, plan to draw upon that in 2017.

"When the guy plays, we win," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "It's hard to ignore that. So we didn't."

Alderson's reference was to the Mets' 106-74 record over the past two years with Cespedes in the lineup, and 18-23 mark without him. It's easy to see why. Of the Mets' 38 hardest-hit balls last season, according to Statcast™, Cespedes hit 24 of them. He clubbed seven of the Mets' 14 longest home runs and nine of their 15 hardest-hit extra-base hits.

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There is little in Cespedes' profile to suggest he was stronger, faster or luckier in 2016 than previous seasons. To the contrary, most of Cespedes' gains since joining the Mets seem to revolve around his plate discipline. No longer the free swinger he was in Oakland, Boston or Detroit, Cespedes shaved a percentage point off his strikeout rate in 2016, while nearly doubling his walk rate.

Heading into 2016, the most significant concern surrounding Cespedes is not his ability to sustain those gains, but his health. Back and quad injuries dogged Cespedes throughout last summer, generating concern that at age 31, he may be losing his ability to stay healthy. But it wasn't concern enough for the Mets to shy away from their star, instead handing out the largest free-agent contract of Alderson's tenure.

Star power plays in New York, the Mets know. And New York is a good place for stars.

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"I said it long before this happened that I wanted to be with this team," Cespedes said. "I wanted to come back to this team, and, God willing, I will finish out my career with this team."

Anthony DiComo has covered the Mets for MLB.com since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.