In case you haven’t been on the internet for the past few days, the Mets signed Jacob deGrom to a five-year, $137.5 million extension earlier this week. It is the long-awaited conclusion of a will-they-or-won’t-they emotional roller coaster that lasted through nearly the entirety of the offseason and began long before this winter. Every offseason for the past few years we’ve been through the same routine. We get a vague report that the Mets are interested in pursuing a contract extension, deGrom reiterates how much he would like to stay a Met, we hear that the sides are “in touch,” and then nothing happens. Even though it feels like an eternity ago, it’s been a mere eight months since then player agent Brodie Van Wagenen demanded the Mets consider trading his client before the trading deadline if they were not interested in extending him.
Now Van Wagenen is the general manager and just as hope was waning, he was able to work with ownership and deGrom’s new agents, Jeff Berry and Matt Ricatto, to get the deal done just under the wire ahead of deGrom’s Opening Day deadline. This move is significant for a whole host of reasons, not in the least of which is that it is a cherry on top of Van Wagenen’s first offseason and allows the Mets to head into the season with a preponderance of goodwill among the fan base. The reaction to this move among the fans and the media was overwhelmingly positive and it allows the Mets to begin 2019 on the right foot, with deGrom already having the first win of the 2019 season under his belt.
More than just making the fans happy because one of their favorite players is now a Met long-term, locking deGrom up sends a message to the rest of the players about the new regime: When we say players first, we mean it. Between the deGrom contract extension and choices like putting Pete Alonso and Luis Guillorme on the roster, Brodie Van Wagenen is showing his players that he’s serious about changing the culture. The baseball world has been paying very close attention as a whole wave of contract extensions have poured in across baseball, from the best player in the game in Mike Trout, to players little known outside their fanbases like Brandon Lowe. As more and more extensions were signed, it got to the point where if deGrom were conspicuously absent among them come Opening Day, it would have been a public relations nightmare for the Mets and a sign that ownership is unwilling to open up their wallets and commit to their players. Now, players that are part of the Mets’ core further away from free agency like Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, or Amed Rosario can feel more confident that if being a Met long-term is something they are interested in, it can happen for them too.
Given that the Mets do have a solid core of players that are still under team control—and now we can add players like Alonso and Jeff McNeil to that list, too—perhaps the most important thing deGrom’s contract extension does is widen the team’s contention window. Prior to the extension, the Mets looked very much like a team that was built to contend for the next two years and not really beyond that. Both Zack Wheeler and Jason Vargas will be free agents after this season. Jed Lowrie is only signed for two years. Yoenis Cespedes is only signed through 2020. Robinson Cano is still a productive player at age 36, but whether he will be at age 38 is very much an open question. All of this, combined with having to replace an elite ace at the top of the rotation as well as two other rotation spots, leaves one feeling like the Mets being competitive beyond 2020 may be too steep a hill to climb. But with deGrom locked up through the time when Noah Syndergaard would hit free agency makes the task seem far less insurmountable.
Replacing deGrom’s production either via graduating talent from the farm system or via free agency is just about impossible. Although deGrom himself is one of the best examples in franchise history of an elite major leaguer that came from a modest prospect pedigree, the Mets’ system doesn’t have any pitchers that come close to a deGromian upside. Looking ahead to the next few classes in free agency, it’s hard to envision the Mets replacing deGrom’s production for a similar or lesser price than the extension itself cost them.
Notable free agent starting pitchers 2019-2020
Zack Wheeler, Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg (opt-out), Rick Porcello, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Wood
Notable free agent starting pitchers 2020-2021
Trevor Bauer, Robbie Ray, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Jake Arrieta, Marcus Stroman, Jose Quintana
Notable free agent starting pitchers 2021-2022
Noah Syndergaard, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Chris Archer, Mike Foltynewicz
Of this group of pitchers, I would argue only Cole, Bauer, Strasburg (and this is assuming he opts out), and Syndergaard are currently in the same class as deGrom as far as quality and are the same age as deGrom or younger. One of those four pitchers is, of course, already on the Mets as well. Kluber and Scherzer are of course right up there with deGrom among the top starters in the game, but will be much older than deGrom by the time they reach free agency. If the Patrick Corbin contract is any sort of indication of what a good starting pitcher in his late 20s can expect to receive in free agency, the likes of Cole and Bauer will likely command even more, which obviously far exceeds the amount deGrom was already extended for. And of course, this is all assuming none of these other pitchers re-up with their existing teams between now and when they hit free agency, which is certainly a big if, given current trends. Put simply, between looking at what the Mets have internally and gauging the free agent starting pitching market, there is no way to replicate deGrom’s on-field value more cheaply than the five-year, $137.5 million deal he just signed.
It is understandable that fans may carry a certain amount of post-traumatic stress from notions of the Wright or Cespedes deals hamstringing the team and precluding them from making other moves. What if deGrom gets hurt? What if he declines? Obviously, these things could happen. But deGrom has had a remarkably healthy track record in the major leagues, has less mileage on his arm than most pitchers his age, and is not currently showing any signs of decline. Given his profile, a Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander outcome feels more likely than the opposite. All of that said, this deal is unlikely to be an albatross from a strict dollars and cents perspective because not only is a significant amount of the money deferred, deGrom’s highest salary seasons are coming after Yoenis Cespedes is off the books and the only major payroll commitment is Robinson Cano’s contract.
Showing commitment to your players in the form of locking down your ace pitcher is a move that has both tangible and intangible benefits for a franchise. It gets the fans excited for a new season and new era of Mets baseball under Brodie Van Wagenen and puts butts in the seats. It means you don’t have to attempt to replace the ace of your staff on the free agent market. It strengthens a relationship with your best player who will be a team leader moving forward with his future secured and who potentially could end up succeeding David Wright as a cornerstone of the franchise. It tells your other players that you are willing to make such a commitment when it is warranted and that you’re serious about winning not just now, but in the future as well. Extending deGrom wasn’t just a feel good symbolic gesture. It was a smart baseball move.