In the aftermath of the Jacob deGrom extension, the start of the season has not slowed the tidal wave of contract extensions happening around baseball. Ronald Acuna Jr., Randal Grichuk, and David Bote are among the latest players to contribute to the demise of free agency—proof positive that this phenomenon doesn’t seem restricted to a specific type of player or a specific caliber of player. In the first two parts of this contract extension candidates series, we covered six other players, including Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and Noah Syndergaard, among others. Now, we round things out with a discussion of three pitchers for whom it makes sense for the Mets to consider an extension.
Of all of the Mets’ extension candidates, Wheeler is obviously the most pressing, as he will be a free agent at the end of this season. Healthy for the first time since 2014, his phenomenal second half last season made him a 4.2 fWAR pitcher for the year—the exact same mark as Noah Syndergaard. The injury history is enough to make one wary of his ability to sustain this production, but it also means that he won’t command as large of an extension as Syndergaard or deGrom and there may be some motivation for him to hedge his bets against another injury by securing his future.
If the current free agent market is any precedent, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wheeler net a contract similar to the one Patrick Corbin signed with the Nationals this past offseason if he is able to put another solid season under his belt. While Jason Vargas leaving for free agency is certainly not the blow that Wheeler leaving for free agency would be, the Mets will have to replace two spots in their rotation next year if they don’t extend Wheeler sometime this season. With very little in the way of starting pitching help on its way in the farm system, they’ll likely have no choice but to turn to the free agent market for at least one of those spots.
Notable starting pitchers who are slated to become free agents this offseason include Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, Rick Porcello, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Wood, and Stephen Strasburg (but only if he opts out of his current contract). So, there is talent in that class that could replace Wheeler’s production, but it appears doubtful that they would do so at the same price or cheaper than a theoretical Wheeler extension. And of course, given the current climate, we cannot guarantee that all of these pitchers will reach free agency themselves. For these reasons, it feels like the Mets should at least be talking to Wheeler about an extension.
One of the reasons why the Mets’ new shutdown closer cost Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn to acquire is because he has multiple years of team control remaining. This is his last pre-arbitration season and if he has anything remotely resembling the season he had in 2018 with the Mariners, his price in arbitration will be steep, as it usually is for elite closers. This is why there has to be some motivation on the part of the Mets to lock in those years now.
Extensions for relievers are tricky, however. It is often said that relievers are the most volatile assets in the game, which makes teams wary of making long-term commitments to them. However, it is somewhat disingenuous to just lump a reliever like Edwin Diaz in with up-and-down random middle relief guys and call them all “volatile” in aggregate. Jeff Sullivan recently did an analysis for Fangraphs where he attempted to answer the question of whether there is truly such a thing as a long-term good reliever. In short, when one sets a threshold of 3 fWAR for position players and 1 fWAR for relievers (i.e., about the top quartile of performers), one finds that the long-term outcomes for position players and relievers are quite similar. In summary: good players tend to stay good and that includes relievers too. And this is all notwithstanding the fact that Diaz wasn’t just a good relief pitcher last year. He was arguably the best reliever in baseball.
All of that said, extensions for relievers still aren’t very common so it’s hard to pin down exactly what a Diaz extension would look like for the Mets. Jose Leclerc recently signed a four-year, $14.75 million extension with the Texas Rangers. Like Diaz, Leclerc is 25 years old and in his last pre-arbitration season. The extension covers that season and buys out all of his arbitration years for what will likely be below market rate. However, while Leclerc did put up elite ERA and strikeout numbers last season, similar to Diaz, he is not a closer. While the “closer” moniker means less than it used to, saves still carry weight when it comes to earning power for free agents and arbitration-eligible players. All-Star closer Brad Hand is probably the closer comparison for Diaz. He signed a three-year extension with the Padres last offseason worth $19.75 million in total, plus a $10 million club option for 2021, prior to being traded to the Indians ahead of last season’s trading deadline. Based upon that precedent, Diaz would likely command the years of the Leclerc contract and at least the AAV of the Hand contract. And given how his arbitration salary is likely to soar, that would be a great deal for the Mets.
If an Edwin Diaz extension is difficult to pin down, a theoretical extension for Seth Lugo is even more so. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a good idea. Like Diaz, Lugo will be arbitration-eligible next offseason. Since coming up in 2016 and being integral to the stretch run that season, Lugo has made himself indispensable to the Mets as a multi-inning threat out of the bullpen.
Like Wheeler, questions about health are both what may make the Mets wary about an extension but also what may keep the price of an extension low for Lugo. This time two years ago, we learned that Seth Lugo had a partially torn UCL. Rather than surgery, Lugo opted for rehab and that decision has worked out well for him thus far. He hasn’t had a flare up since and there are other pitchers, such as Masahiro Tanaka, that have pitched effectively for multiple seasons with a partially torn UCL before. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t lingering in the background as something both the Mets and Lugo need to consider moving forward. The ability to throw fewer innings and more off-speed pitches out of the bullpen may be protective for Lugo. And if you want to put stock in the aforementioned Fangraphs analysis, Lugo has put up 1.6 fWAR each of the past two seasons.
Lugo is now in his age 29 season and doesn’t have the flashy ERA and save numbers that would drive up his price in arbitration. But that also means he could probably be locked up at far under the market rate for a free agent setup man.
Adding to the deGrom extension by taking steps to solidify both the rotation and the bullpen via extensions to guys like Syndergaard, Wheeler, Diaz, and Lugo would go a long way toward widening the Mets’ contention window far beyond 2020.