The first anniversary of the Mets’ hiring of Brodie Van Wagenen is fast approaching. There have been some ups and downs, as might be expected. He’s currently looking for a new skipper and plotting a course for the coming offseason. One thing that is clear: the Mets are trying to win now. Van Wagenen’s task is to end a three-year postseason drought. But he’s going to have a tough time adding to his existing slate of talent unless he’s handed a larger purse to work with this winter. It’s not exactly a new situation in Queens, but it’s one worth examining anew with the market soon set to open.
The win-now mission was already evident, but its immediacy was highlighted and enhanced by the organization’s mid-summer transactions and non-transactions. On July 12th, the Mets sat 11 games under .500. By the time they had agreed to acquire Marcus Stroman on July 28th, they had closed that to five games under. And on the day after the deadline, the Queens denizens were three shy of even and in the middle of a wondrous hot streak that totally flipped the script on the season.
Trouble was, the Mets’ fate was always been tied inextricably to stumbles from the teams ahead of them. And they needed more than they could get. The Mets matched or bested a laundry list of mid-level National League teams. That was something of an accomplishment. But the outcome — no realistic hope entering the final week of the season — was exceedingly likely at the time of the deadline. With so many teams clustered ahead of the Mets late this summer, it was all but inevitable that a few would emerge. As it turned out, two of those ballclubs played about as well as the Mets have over the final two months of the campaign. With their preexisting advantages, the Nats and Brewers cruised ahead of their rivals in New York. This is why those playoff odds charts seemed so gloomy in late July.
So what was the point of that win-now-oriented deadline approach? Well, it certainly put more butts in the seats down the stretch. It helped breathe life into what had been a moribund season. It enabled the Mets to return to the ranks of the winning (86-76) and perhaps launched some forward momentum.
More importantly, though, this past summer’s decisionmaking was the start of the construction of the 2020 roster. Adding Stroman, while dumping Jason Vargas, was mostly salary-neutral for 2019. But it put a big number on the books for 2020 and cost the Mets one near-majors hurler (along with a further-off prospect). Hanging onto Zack Wheeler, who seems exceedingly likely to receive and decline a qualifying offer, meant foregoing a chance to recoup upper-level prospect depth in preference for a half season of Wheeler’s pitching and likely draft compensation.
Taking on Robinson Cano’s contract and sacrificing some intriguing prospects to get Edwin Diaz had already set the Mets down this trail. The 2019 trade deadline was Van Wagenen and co. pressing bravely on for glory rather than seeking a path back to relative safety.
So … let’s take stock of where the Mets stand with the offseason upon us. Juan Lagares and Todd Frazier are off the books, but that doesn’t mean there’s money to spend on replacements or other upgrades. Here are some of the major expenses that are either locked in or all but assured to be picked up:
- Yoenis Cespedes: $29MM
- Robinson Cano: $20.25MM (net of Mariners’ portion of obligation)
- Jacob deGrom: $23MM salary ($12MM deferred); $10MM signing bonus payment 1/2/20
- Jed Lowrie: $9MM salary; $1MM bonus payment in 11/15/19 & $500K bonus payment 1/15/20 (contract also includes $2.5MM bonus payment 1/15/21)
- Wilson Ramos: $9.25MM
- Jeurys Familia: $11MM ($1MM deferred)
- Justin Wilson: $5MM
- Total: $105MM payable during 2019-20 offseason/2020 season
- Marcus Stroman – $11.8MM
- Noah Syndergaard – $9.9MM
- Steven Matz – $5.3MM
- Michael Conforto – $9.2MM
- Edwin Diaz – $7.0MM
- Seth Lugo – $1.9MM
- Brandon Nimmo – $1.7MM
- Robert Gsellman – $1.2MM
- Total: $48MM (assuming non-tender of Joe Panik, $5.1MM projection)
- David Wright: $12MM (75% reportedly covered by insurance contract; unknown settlement presumptively reached)
- Juan Lagares: $500K buyout
There are many ways to tally all of this, and we don’t know exactly how the Mets are thinking about it internally, but that’s a big slate of preexisting commitments. In the past, the club has reportedly treated Wright’s ongoing payouts as part of its payroll, even though he’s finished playing. Whether that’s the case — and what exactly the insurance work-out looks like — isn’t known. It’s also not totally clear how the club views the deGrom and Familia deferrals or Lowrie’s final bonus payout.
If we tabulate only cash owed this winter and in the 2020 season, and presume the team will be paying $3MM of the Wright contract, that still puts the cash payroll at a minimum of $161.5MM (presuming league-minimum salaries for ten roster spots not otherwise accounted for by the players listed above). Perhaps the team has it a bit lower or a bit higher for its internal purposes, but that seems like a good number to start with based upon what we do know.
Trouble is, the Mets have never yet started a season with a payroll that reached $160MM. They were close to $150MM in 2009 and over that amount in each of the past three seasons. But it seems the Mets are right about at capacity, barring a northward movement in spending allocation for the MLB roster.
So, unless the Wilpon ownership group is preparing to commit more cash to the cause, the front office is going to have to get very creative. The Mets roster does have quite a bit of talent, but it’s also the same essential unit that fell short this year and could certainly stand to be supplemented in several areas. There’s no true center fielder. We all know how the bullpen looked in 2019. The rotation is missing one piece and still also needs depth. Mis-fitting first baseman Dominic Smith might bring back a useful and affordable player, though it isn’t as if he alone will nab a quality pre-arb starter. And the farm system has already been mined for the aforementioned trades, making it tough to commit further prospect capital.
Big-contract swaps? Trading away quality, younger players? A deeper dig into the farm? There are conceivable possibilities, though none jump off the page as being obviously beneficial. There’ll be high stakes and tough choices to make for the Mets front office this winter — unless, perhaps, ownership has a winter payroll bonus planned for Van Wagenen and company to play with.