The Mets have circled back around to free-agent right-hander Taijuan Walker and engaged his camp in “extensive” discussions, SNY’s Andy Martino reports. Walker is the club’s top target over righty Jake Odorizzi at the moment, per the report. Metsmerized’s Michael Mayer connected the two sides this week as well, adding that the righty has been looking for a multi-year deal worth $10MM+ annually.
Still just 28 years old, Walker is one of the youngest free agents on the market but has yet to find a multi-year offer to his liking. The former top prospect missed the vast majority of the 2018-19 seasons due to injuries — most notably Tommy John surgery — but returned to his original organization, the Mariners, on a one-year deal last offseason. Walker tossed 27 solid frames for the Mariners before being traded to the Blue Jays and continuing to throw well. On the whole, he turned in 53 1/3 innings with an appealing 2.70 ERA.
That said, the numbers beyond his ERA don’t look quite as rosy. Walker benefited from a .243 average on balls in play and a slightly elevated 78.5 percent strand rate. His 22.2 percent strikeout rate was a it worse than league average, as was his 39.1 percent ground-ball rate. The righty’s 93.5 mph average heater was down from its 95.1 mph peak, and his swinging-strike rate was among the lowest in the league (13th percentile, per Statcast). Fielding-independent marks like SIERA (4.60) and Statcast’s xERA (4.87) aren’t as bullish on Walker as his bottom-line ERA.
Coupled with some durability concerns stemming from his 2018-19 absence, it’s understandable that clubs might not be sold on giving Walker a lucrative multi-year deal based on 11 starts (during which he averaged fewer than five frames per outing). To Walker’s credit, he was at one point one of the game’s premier pitching prospects and is younger than virtually all of his peers on the open market, thus arguably giving him more upside than said peers.
The Mets wouldn’t need Walker to be much more than a fourth starter for them, though, and we’ve seen fourth starters get paid eight-figure salaries on multi-year deals frequently in the past. New York currently has a solid but top-heavy rotation mix at present, with two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom again set to lead the charge. He’ll be followed by Carlos Carrasco and Marcus Stroman, with former first-rounder David Peterson currently in line for the fourth starter’s gig after an impressive rookie campaign.
Beyond that quartet, the Mets have trade acquisitions Joey Lucchesi, Jordan Yamamoto and Sean Reid-Foley on the 40-man roster, as well as offseason signee Sam McWilliams. Their depth is unequivocally better than in 2020 — the Mets also have Mike Montgomery and Jerad Eickhoff in camp on non-roster deals — but there’s still some uncertainty after the top three names. Walker comes with his own question marks, but he’s also had more success at the MLB level than any of the options the Mets currently have for the back of the rotation. In 581 2/3 innings dating back to 2013, Walker has a 3.84 ERA.
From a financial vantage point, adding Walker surely wouldn’t put the Mets in any danger of surpassing the luxury threshold. They’re currently at $187.7MM in luxury obligations at the moment, per Roster Resource’s Jason Martinez, so any deal with Walker would likely leave them eight figures of breathing room with regard to the tax barrier.