Noah Syndergaard made his long-awaited return to the Mets this evening, firing a perfect inning as an opener in tonight’s win over the Marlins. It was the right-hander’s first big league appearance since September 2019, as Syndergaard lost all of last year and almost the entirety of this season recuperating from a March 2020 Tommy John surgery.
Syndergaard is scheduled to hit the open market a couple months from now, setting up one of the more interesting free agency cases of the offseason. At his best, the fireballer is one of the game’s most fearsome starters. He entered play tonight with a 3.31 ERA over 716 career innings, including a 2016-18 stretch in which he worked 368 1/3 frames of 2.81 ERA/2.42 FIP ball.
It’s difficult to know precisely what to expect from Syndergaard coming off two almost completely lost seasons, though. Teams aren’t going to place much emphasis on his results over a lone inning of work, but Syndergaard’s fastball averaged 96 MPH in his return outing. That’s not quite his peak level of arm strength, of course, but it’s sufficient velocity to assuage concerns that his stuff completely evaporated over the long layoff.
After the game, Syndergaard discussed his upcoming free agency with reporters (including Tim Britton of the Athletic and Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News). The 29-year-old said he’s “fairly confident” he’ll remain with the Mets beyond this season, although he cautioned that statement was speculative as opposed to an indication the club and his representatives at CAA were on the verge of any sort of agreement.
The qualifying offer is one potential form a Mets’ return might take. New York could tag Syndergaard with a QO, which would be for one year and is expected to land in the $19-20MM range. If Syndergaard accepted the offer, he’d lock in another year in Queens. Were he to reject and sign elsewhere, the Mets would receive a draft choice as compensation.
Unsurprisingly, Syndergaard didn’t directly answer whether he’d accept a QO if offered. But he told reporters he’d “be extremely grateful” to be tagged with a QO, adding that that outcome would be “definitely something I’m hoping for.” That’s a bit counterintuitive on the surface, since being attached to draft pick compensation could have something of an adverse effect on Syndergaard’s market. It’s possible he’d simply appreciate the symbolism of the offer as a show of faith on the Mets’ part in his ability to bounce back next season. And a QO would at least give Syndergaard and his reps an additional option; players tagged with a QO have ten days to decide whether to accept, giving them some time to explore the market early in free agency while having a solid one-year salary available as a fallback.
Syndergaard is one of two key QO decisions the Mets will have to make this winter. They’re reportedly leaning towards offering one to outfielder Michael Conforto in spite of his generally disappointing 2021 campaign. There’s certainly merit to the idea of potentially bringing back both Syndergaard and Conforto on significant one-year deals. If they were to get a healthy season from Syndergaard and/or a Conforto bounceback next year, those salaries would look plenty reasonable and they’d be significant boons to the club’s hopes of putting this year’s second half swoon behind them and competing in the NL East.
Were both players to accept, however, that’d push the Mets’ guaranteed payroll up to around $175MM, in the estimation of Jason Martinez of Roster Resource, before accounting for an arbitration class that’ll include the likes of Edwin Díaz, Brandon Nimmo, Dominic Smith, J.D. Davis, Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil. Those raises would take the Mets right up to or perhaps even past this season’s estimated $203MM player tab, and that’s without considering the possibilities of extending Marcus Stroman or Javier Báez and making outside upgrades. That’d leave the front office — and its still-unknown incoming president of baseball operations — potentially looking to trade away some established members of the roster, unless owner Steve Cohen is willing to dramatically ramp up spending in his second year atop the franchise.