9:10 pm: Jon Heyman of the MLB Network tweeted this afternoon that the Mets seemed to be prioritizing Max Scherzer and Gausman above Ray at the top of the market, which could align with concerns about forfeiting a top 15 pick by signing a qualified free agent. Heyman notes that the Mets remain interested in Stroman, among others.
1:23 pm: Billy Eppler has only formally been the Mets’ general manager a bit more than a week, but he’s jumped right into the mix and is working to bolster the team’s starting staff. Eppler said in an appearance on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM this week that he’s “engaged in a ton of starting pitching right now” (Twitter link, with audio).
A spotlight was shined on the Mets’ interest in the rotation market this week when owner Steve Cohen voiced frustration with Steven Matz’s representatives after the lefty spurned his former Mets club to sign a four-year deal with the Cardinals. The Mets also attended Justin Verlander’s showcase earlier this offseason, though he has since re-signed with the Astros.
Starting pitching is an obvious need for the Mets, who’ve already watched Noah Syndergaard reject their qualifying offer for a slightly larger guarantee with the Angels. The Mets also don’t know whether free agent Marcus Stroman will return, and they’ve already announced that Carlos Carrasco underwent surgery to remove bone fragments from his pitching elbow. The current timeline has Carrasco returning early in Spring Training, but that issue, combined with David Peterson’s late-July foot surgery and the forearm issue that ended Jacob deGrom’s season in early July, only serves to further muddy the outlook.
The Mets are reportedly loath to sign a free agent who’d require them to surrender a draft pick, as doing so would mean forfeiting their second-highest pick — in this instance, the No. 14 overall selection in the draft. New York also has the No. 11 pick as compensation for not signing top pick Kumar Rocker in the 2021 draft. That might take Robbie Ray off the table, but he’s the lone remaining free agent starting pitcher tied to draft compensation. (The New York Post’s Mike Puma argued this week that even that steep penalty shouldn’t necessarily dissuade the Mets from pursuing Ray.) The remainder of free agents, including Stroman, Kevin Gausman, Jon Gray and Carlos Rodon, among others, can be signed absent of draft-pick considerations.
The trade market, of course, presents myriad other opportunities. One interesting note raised by Eppler — speaking more generally and not specifically with regard to the rotation — was the Mets’ ability and openness to take on a bad contract as a means of effectively purchasing a prospect from another club. Eppler was the Angels’ general manager when they traded 2019 first-round pick Will Wilson to the Giants in order to shed the remainder of Zack Cozart’s contract while dealing with payroll limitations from his prior ownership. Now, Eppler suggests he could be on the opposite side of such a transaction.
“There are avenues to go grab contracts elsewhere and tie prospects to them,” said Eppler. “Some teams are still doing that — most teams are not — but I think the openness and willingness to be able to say, ’We’re going to spend a lot on this player, the contract might be a touch underwater, but we’re going to get this prospect back.’ Exploring those, and trying to push those through a little more — there’s an openness to do that here.”
There are various permutations of that arrangement. The Wilson/Cozart deal, in its simplest form, came down to the Giants effectively purchasing a prospect from the Eppler’s Angels. However, it’s also fairly common for teams to take on an underwater contract when acquiring a more desirable player, providing some salary relief in exchange for surrendering less in terms of prospect capital.
For instance, if the Mets were to make a strong push for one of the Athletics’ available starters (e.g. Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt), offering to take on the remaining $8.25MM owed to outfielder Stephen Piscotty could persuade the A’s to settle for a lesser return. To be clear, that’s just one example — and there’s no indication the A’s are open to that specific scenario. But, that type of arrangement is another in which Eppler could leverage the Mets’ financial might in trade talks.
Whichever route the Mets ultimately take, some kind of upgrade seems inevitable. Their current rotation projects to include deGrom, Carrasco, Taijuan Walker, Tylor Megill and Peterson. It’s not at all a poor quintet if all are healthy, but for a big-market club with postseason aspirations, an additional veteran (or two) to add some dependable innings behind deGrom is a logical pursuit.