With Steve Cohen’s purchase of the Mets having been approved yesterday, we don’t know what exactly the team will look like moving forward, but it’s not hard to dream of much better times when you see things like Jeff Passan’s tweet that Cohen is intent on building “an east coast version of the Dodgers.”
If that is, indeed, Cohen’s goal, one of the many ways to make the Mets a great baseball team on a perennial basis would be retaining their own players for the long term by signing them to contract extensions. It’s something the Mets largely avoided under the Wilpons, with David Wright and Jacob deGrom having been the most notable exceptions and Jon Niese having been signed to a five-year extension with two team options just as the 2012 season got underway.
And that brings us to Michael Conforto, the first of several players whose candidacy for a contract extension we’ll highlight in a series here at Amazin’ Avenue. The 27-year-old outfielder was outstanding in the shortened season, hitting .322/.412/.515 with 9 home runs and a 157 wRC+ in 233 plate appearances. That made him one of the better hitters in the game this year, and both his fWAR and bWAR for the season ended up at 2.0.
In terms of the timeline of his career, Conforto is closer to where Wright and deGrom were at the times of their extensions, as he is entering his final season of arbitration-eligibility this winter before being eligible for free agency following the 2021 season. And after that season, the Mets have just two players with guaranteed salaries: deGrom and Robinson Cano, both of whom are on contracts that run through the 2023 season.
Whatever Cohen’s budget for payroll is, that leaves a nearly-blank slate for the team, and Conforto would be a great player to retain for the long haul. Mets team president Sandy Alderson was general manager of the team back when Conforto was drafted in the first round in 2014 and called up for his major league debut in 2015. And over the course of his major league career, Conforto has a .259/.358/.484 line with a 128 wRC+.
Conforto has been consistent over the course of the six years he’s been in the big leagues, with his sophomore season being the only one in which he finished below a 100 wRC+ at 97. Aside from that, his lowest mark was a 120 in 2018, which is still very good. And after playing in 109 games in both 2016 and 2017 because of injuries, Conforto played in 153 and 151 in 2018 and 2019 and 54 of the Mets’ 60 games this year, missing six games near the end of the season with a hamstring injury.
The fact that this season ended with a minor injury doesn’t negate the fact that Conforto has been largely healthy for three years in a row, and his production at the plate looked like he had turned a corner from being a very good hitter to a great one. Of course, drawing major conclusions from a 60-game season would be foolish, but Conforto has always had the ability to be among the game’s better hitters, and his floor is high.
Trying to guess what exactly an extension would look like for Conforto—or anyone—right now is a bit difficult, as teams across the league look to shed salary in the name of the COVID-19 economy. But heading into his age-28 season, it would seem that Conforto could easily command a deal in the neighborhood of five or six years at something like an average of $20 million per season. Conforto is represented by Scott Boras, but that does not make an extension impossible, especially right now.
On top of the fact that extending Conforto would be a wise move under any circumstances, the Mets’ minor league ranks are not stacked with outfielders. There are other factors in the Mets’ long-term planning, as the corner outfield spots have been somewhat crowded. Brandon Nimmo, J.D. Davis, and Dominic Smith have spent time in those spots—with Davis and Smith not really being outfielders—and no true center fielder on the Mets’ roster. Whether or not the National League will have a designated hitter in 2021 or permanently once a new collective bargaining agreement is in place for 2022 and beyond is unknown, and a definitive answer on that could help the Mets quite a bit given the players currently on the roster.
Whatever the Mets decide to do with their other players, though, there is no doubt that Conforto is a natural corner outfielder and a very good hitter. Just as Jacob deGrom is the cornerstone of the Mets’ pitching staff, Conforto is a player worth retaining and building around for years to come.