The December 2 non-tender deadline, by which all MLB teams will need to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players on their 40-man roster by 7:00 PM EST, is quickly approaching, and the New York Mets will have some decisions to make. Last year, New York tendered a contract to all eight eligible players, and the club has 13 players eligible for arbitration for the upcoming season.
A majority of those decisions are pretty cut and dry, including guys like Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Noah Syndergaard, Seth Lugo, and Dominic Smith, all of whom will factor heavily into their future plans and could be considered extension candidates. One of the most intriguing names on that list, however, is Steven Matz, who will be entering his seventh major league season in 2021. He’s no longer an up-and-comer with endless potential, he’s no longer part of the team’s projected core of aces, and he’s coming off the worst season of his career. Last winter, the Mets and Matz agreed on a $5 million contract, which came in a little below most projection models. This year, MLB Trade Rumors projects the lefty could receive anywhere from $5 million to $5.3 million, a number which they admit is tough to project given the uncertainty around measuring results in a shortened season.
Matz is coming off a year that saw him post an unsightly 9.68 ERA, 7.76 FIP, and 1.70 WHIP with a -1.0 bWAR. The rest of his numbers were equally alarming, as he allowed 12.3 H/9 and 4.1 HR/9, and he walked 2.9 BB/9, the latter of which is disappointingly in line with his career norms. Over the course of the 60-game season, he made six starts and nine total appearances and lost his starting job in late August before he landed on the injured list with shoulder discomfort after just one relief outing. His only other start post-injury saw him get shellacked to the tune of six earned runs in 2.2 innings, and he closed out the year with two uninspiring relief outings—one earned run over one inning and three earned runs over three innings. He allowed at least five earned runs in each of his last four starts and only pitched into the sixth inning in his two July starts. All and all, it was an ugly year for the Long Island native. So what do the Mets do with the enigmatic starter?
The case can be made for both tendering him a contract and non-tendering the frustratingly inconsistent Matz. On the one hand, $5.3 million for a left-handed starting pitcher is still a relative bargain, and the Mets still have at least two holes to fill in their rotation for the 2021 season. As it stands now, only Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, and David Peterson are guaranteed spots, and the rest is just one giant question mark. Seth Lugo will likely garner consideration for one of those two spots, but the team would be smart to stock up on starting options to give them the option to put Lugo in the bullpen, where he has flourished. We’ve also seen a lack of pitching depth kill the Mets in the past, so the team would do well to have as many options handy as possible to account for the unknown.
It also may not be wise to judge anybody based on a shortened 60-game season, which could result in some rash decisions being made. Matz, who has been prone to injuries, had back-to-back 30-start seasons in 2018 and 2019, and has morphed into a mostly dependable back-of-the-rotation starter. Far from the ace he was projected to be, he put up a respectable 3.97 ERA in 2018, and he followed that with a 4.21 ERA in 2019. While those numbers are far from eye-catching, he had proven in those two seasons that he can still give you plenty of solid starts over the course of a 162-game season. The Mets, who will be in need of arms in another year that could prove unpredictable due to the pandemic, could do well to bring back Matz and hope that 2020 was more of a really bad blip than anything.
But it would be easy to see why non-tendering Matz would be a smart move. The 29-year-old is no longer a celebrated prospect that the team’s hopes are built around, and it’s hard to keep excusing the lack of measurable growth that he’s exhibited since his debut. Over the course of his career, he’s posted a 4.35 ERA, a 4.49 FIP, a 1.32 WHIP, and a 7.0 bWAR in six seasons, and his numbers have been steadily declining. His walk rate has climbed to over 7.0% in each of the past three seasons, and he has been allowing more and more home runs, culminating in last year’s 4.11 HR/9.
It can easily be argued that he has done little to prove he belongs in a major league roster, and the team should absolutely not guarantee him a spot. And beyond the gruesome stats, his body language over much of last season has also concerning, and has been for much of his time with the Mets. He is often spotted hanging his head and looking frustrated and flummoxed on the mound and has a bad habit of letting one mistake snowball into a disastrous inning that sinks the team’s chances early in games.
At best, he could be brought back to compete for a spot in spring training and, if that’s the case, do you want to guarantee him $5.3 million for someone who might end up as a glorified mop-up man out of the pen when the team badly needs starting pitching? Even if Matz is brought back, the team would still need to sign two more starting pitchers due to this lack of confidence in him. At that point, the team can better allocate that $5 million on the free agent market to fill that rotation hole. With so many teams looking to cut costs this winter, it stands to reason that a lot of other teams will also be non-tendering starters that are better than Matz in an effort to reduce their payroll, and the current free agent starter pool could look a lot better come December.
While there’s a feeling among Mets fans that the team is operating with unlimited resources in the Steve Cohen era, all indications are that the team is still planning to stay below the luxury tax threshold, which gives the Mets somewhere roughly $75 million to spend this offseason after arbitration estimates are inputted, according to Cot’s Contracts. With that money, they still need to sign two viable starters, a catcher, a center fielder, fill a middle infield/third base position, and fortify the bullpen. An extra $5 million could go a long way towards filling one of those needs with a more reliable player.
As a final case, it’s likely that his value around the league is non-existent. The Mets could easily try to non-tender Matz and then try to sign him to a more team-friendly contract below what he’s estimated to get in arbitration. It’s a low-risk situation for the team because, if they pull it off, they can test him out in spring training and either DFA him or try him out in the bullpen if he’s not cut out to start, and if another team signs him, they can allocate the costs towards a safer starting pitcher.
It’ll be curious to see how the new front office approaches the curious case of Stephen Matz. The choice lies in whether the team thinks 2020 is a mere aberration and that he can still become a valuable contributor to a playoff-bound team or a concerning sign of where his career is heading. If it’s the latter, there really is no choice but to cut ties with him. Decisions are due in just over a week, at which point all players who are tendered will have until January 15 to reach an agreement with the club or go to arbitration to determine a salary for the 2021 season.