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The needs are clearer than the means for the Mets as they enter a critical second offseason under GM Brodie Van Wagenen.
- Jacob deGrom: $130.5MM through 2023 (includes $20MM signing bonus, due in two installments on 1/2/20 and 1/4/21)
- Robinson Cano: $81MM through 2023 (excludes $15MM of remaining obligations owed by Mariners)
- Yoenis Cespedes: $29.5MM through 2020
- Jeurys Familia: $22MM through 2021
- Jed Lowrie: $13MM through 2020 (includes $4MM in remaining signing bonus obligations)
- Wilson Ramos: $10.75MM (includes $1.5MM buyout on $10MM 2021 club option)
- David Wright: $9MM through 2020 (excludes estimated $3MM covered by insurance proceeds)
- Justin Wilson: $5MM through 2020
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- 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
- Non-tender candidates: None
- Aaron Altherr, Luis Avilan, Brad Brach, Rajai Davis, Todd Frazier, Donnie Hart, Joe Panik, Rene Rivera, Zack Wheeler (declined qualifying offer)
- Juan Lagares (paid $500K buyout in favor of $9.5MM club option)
The Mets play in New York, as you may already be aware. But the club’s payroll in recent years has not quite matched its top-of-class market size … a fact you’re also likely familiar with if you’re reading this post. As we sit here today, the Mets are already committed to spending as much as or more than they have have in recent seasons, when they have seemingly operated with fairly clear budgetary restrictions.
So, the Mets are tapped out, right? They can try to move money via trades, but that would mean parting with useful players and/or prospects. Tapping into the talent pipeline would be awfully tough to swallow after having already cleared out some of the farm’s most promising youngsters over the past year in other swaps. It seems like a predicament.
Why, then, are we reading articles throwing around concepts of re-signing Zack Wheeler, landing a similarly spendy replacement, risking a good chunk of change on rehabbing reliever Dellin Betances, trading for Mookie Betts, etc? Does Van Wagenen have freedom to pursue such high-priced players or is he limited to value-for-value swaps that don’t add to the team’s existing payroll commitments?
There’s no answer here. It’s all a mystery. The team wouldn’t want the market to know its precise plans, so that’s sensible enough. But it makes it awfully difficult to assess the offseason possibilities and all but impossible to guess some of the key pieces that’ll be available to new skipper Carlos Beltran.
On the one hand, we’ve not been given reason to believe that the Mets organization is on the verge of a big payroll boost. The team seemed in position to do that sort of thing previously — on the heels of a surprise World Series appearance, say — and didn’t really surge in spending. On the other, Van Wagenen actually responded to questions about the $208MM luxury tax line in a manner that suggested it wasn’t completely absurd to ask about. His answer didn’t exactly indicate that the Mets would be ramping up to that level — “if the luxury tax threshold becomes something we have to consider, then we will talk about it at that time” — but the top baseball ops officer could have taken the opportunity to temper expectations and it seems notable that he didn’t.
While we don’t know for sure what financial means the Mets will have to address their needs, we do have a pretty clear idea of what the roster gaps are. And it’s also not hard to identify a few big-league pieces that could be utilized in lieu of prospects to help swing deals. First baseman Dominic Smith is the most obvious candidate to be moved after showing well with the bat but being eclipsed entirely by a large white bear (also known as Rookie of the Year Peter Alonso). And bat-first utilityman J.D. Davis could also be dangled in some scenarios. More on him below. We shouldn’t overstate the value of these players. Smith only had a brief showing last year due to injury; Davis rode a .355 BABIP. Both are limited on the basepaths and in the field. But they’re useful pre-arb performers with clear surplus value who’d hold clear appeal to a good number of rival organizations.
It’s also rather easy to see where the Mets could stand to improve. Let’s start in center field. With the end of the Juan Lagares era, and the failure of the other players brought in last season to supplement/challenge him, there’s a void up the middle. The preference is not to utilize Michael Conforto and/or Brandon Nimmo there, at least in a full-time capacity, so the optimal outcome is to secure the services of a full-time center fielder with a fall-back of getting a right-handed-hitting part-timer to platoon with those existing lefty bats.
Those two paths also play into the question whether Davis ought to be dealt or retained. If the Mets end up with a CF timeshare, then there should be more plate appearances left for Davis to pick up in the corners. But if the Mets find a regular to play in center, then perhaps Davis won’t have as many opportunities as might be preferred in the corner outfield. It’s easier to deal him in that case, perhaps even as part of the swap for the desired center fielder. The Mets could backfill with a low-cost, righty-hitting veteran to serve as a fourth outfielder … or try to dig up the next Davis in another trade. It’s worth pausing to note that Yoenis Cespedes remains a hypothetical candidate to return, though it remains utterly unclear whether and when that might happen. If the Mets have secret cause for optimism on Cespedes, perhaps that also tips in favor of a Davis swap.
So, the options in center … like many teams, the Mets make an ideal fit for Starling Marte of the Pirates. He isn’t cheap, but isn’t so expensive ($11.5MM in 2020 with an option for 2021) that the Mets can’t figure it out. The Bucs have previously chased after MLB-ready pieces rather than prospects, which suits the New York situation. We don’t know if the Pirates will deal Josh Bell, but if they do, Smith would make an awful lot of sense as a target. Trouble is, there ought to be rather intense competition on Marte. And there’s a new front office regime in Pittsburgh, with a shifting mandate that may favor more drastic action.
Rental piece Jackie Bradley Jr. will cost similarly in salary (a projected $11MM) and quite a bit less in return. It’s easy to imagine Ender Inciarte as a fit if the Braves go in a different direction … and decide to deal in their division. Perhaps Manuel Margot would be a nice compromise if something more can’t be done and the Padres decide to move on. He’s priced fairly ($2.1MM projected) as a platoon candidate with some hopeful upside remaining. There isn’t a regular option in free agency, unless you believe in incoming Japanese star Shogo Akiyama. He’s a left-handed hitter who doesn’t seem to have captured the Mets’ interest. Brett Gardner is likewise a lefty bat. The Mets could turn to Cameron Maybin or another righty-swinging part-timer on the open market.
That’s really the bulk of the work on the position player side. Most of the 4-through-6 infield time ought to be accounted for between Jeff McNeil, Amed Rosario, Robinson Cano, and Jed Lowrie — at least, supposing Lowrie can come back from the mystery issues that derailed his first season in New York. Luis Guillorme represents a utility option. Davis can play third base if he remains on hand, though metrics (DRS, especially) have panned his work there. It’s worth noting that top prospect Andres Gimenez is on the rise. He’s just 21 years of age but could crack the majors if he makes strides at Triple-A and there’s a need. You can certainly imagine a bit of supplementation for this group, perhaps in the form of minor-league signings, but the Mets can be rather confident in what they have.
It’s debatable whether that same confidence ought to extend behind the dish, where veteran Wilson Ramos remains a capable hitter and questionable defender. The opposite is true of reserve Tomas Nido. Van Wagenen has indicated he’s not inclined to pursue a major shakeup at the catching position — “we expect to go into the season with Wilson Ramos as our guy” — but will be “in the market looking for backup options.” The Mets could revisit talks with Yasmany Grandal after just missing him last year, but that’d be quite a surprise given those comments and the other, more pressing needs. Expect the Mets to look at the many lower-cost veterans available this year to shore things up behind the plate.
If it was as simple as adding a center fielder and a few complimentary pieces, the budgetary constraints wouldn’t be as worrisome. But the Mets also need arms. The starting staff has four pieces in place but needs several more, particularly given the health scares that some members of the group have had in recent seasons. It’s quite unlikely that the Mets will lure Wheeler back or replace him with an equivalently valuable player — again, unless there’s a much bigger budget to work with than we know. Van Wagenen had names to cite when asked recently about rotation depth. And to be sure, hurlers such as Chris Flexen, Walker Lockett, Corey Oswalt, and recent first-rounder David Peterson do represent near-term options. But it’s tough to rely upon those hurlers for significant contributions, particularly with a full rotation spot as yet unaccounted for. There has been some talk of stretching out Seth Lugo (and also Robert Gsellman), but it seems likely the team will hope Lugo can reprise his excellent relief work from 2019.
Van Wagenen knows that, which is why he has cited a need to improve in the rotation. It’s likely the Mets will try to land multiple pitchers capable of gobbling up innings. New Jersey product Rick Porcello would be the sort of durable bounceback candidate who’d make sense, though he doesn’t figure to be particularly cheap. There are options at every price point on the market this year. No doubt the Mets will be among the many teams prowling patiently as a high-volume class of free-agent starters seeks contracts.
The pen is obviously a need as well. Last year’s unit was one of the worst in baseball. There’s not much choice but to hope that Edwin Diaz figures things out. He could push Lugo back into setup duty with a big spring. Those two hurlers and lefty Justin Wilson will likely make up the key late-inning trio. Jeurys Familia is also going to be given every chance to find his form, though he’s likely destined for a lower-leverage spot to begin the year. Robert Gsellman is another hurler who is looking for redemption. Among the depth options, Paul Sewald stands out. He doesn’t get many swings and misses but got solid results in a brutal Triple-A environment and turned in a 22:3 K/BB ratio in his 19 2/3 MLB innings.
There’s certainly room to improve here. You could argue for two significant additions. But the budget crunch will make it tough to take risks in this area. It’s understandable that some fans would like to see New York native Dellin Betances make a dramatic cross-borough move. But if dollars are tight, that’s a big risk to take. A return for Jersey boy Brad Brach, who was solid late in 2019, would seem more realistic. Fortunately for the Mets, there’s an abundance of solid relief arms that should be available for fairly modest commitments.
In MLBTR’s ranking of the top fifty free agents, we guessed the team would come away with a fifth starter (Ivan Nova) and useful veteran reliever (Craig Stammen). New Yorkers were not especially excited by this — though, to be fair, they were much more upset at our equally ho-hum predictions for the Yankees. There’s no question the Mets can and quite arguably should do more. It’s a tough division, but they’re trying to compete and the window is certainly open. And, yeah, it’s New York.
Substituting out Nova and Stammen in favor of Cole Hamels and Will Harris just might make the difference … and would almost certainly cost an extra $12MM or more in 2020 salary alone. Bringing back Wheeler and adding multiple relievers would be even better … and yet more expensive. We just don’t know how the organization will behave this winter. But we’ll soon find out.