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A major decision looms with QO free agents

The failure to sign Kumar Rocker will have a major impact on the Mets’ free agent plans.

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

For those who aren’t as plugged into the draft, let’s recap what went down earlier this season. The Mets floated Kumar Rocker - a consensus top-end talent who dominated in college but did have some injury concerns - to the 10th overall pick, a spot much further down the board than he was expected to go. They then failed to sign him (and made other critical mistakes, which you can read about here), meaning they received the 11th overall pick in the 2022 draft as compensation.

That’s a valuable asset, but it’s also a poisoned one. As a team that was not past the luxury tax threshold in 2021, the Mets would have to give up their second highest pick to sign a free agent who received the qualifying offer (QO), along with a small penalty to their international spending pool. Adding subsequent QO free agents would cost the Mets their third highest pick and so on. Under normal circumstances, that would simply be their 2nd round pick, followed by their 3rd and then 4th round selection, while the team’s normal first round pick would be untouched.

Instead, the Mets standard 2022 1st round pick - 14th overall - is now their second highest. Because they failed to sign their first round pick and subsequently finished with a better record than the previous season (compensation picks from failed signings are exempt from the QO formula), the Mets will be forced to pay a much steeper price than any other team in the league to add top-end free agents. Simply put, this is a disaster, and it puts the Mets in a very tricky position.

So now there’s a decision to be made. Do the Mets decline to pursue any top-end free agents, restricting themselves to second-tier options or the handful of high-end players who aren’t tied to draft pick compensation? Or do they instead go all out, forging ahead despite the increased cost in draft capital to add the best players they can to the major league roster?

On the one hand, there are a still a number of quality free agent options that will not receive the QO. Guys like Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Starling Marte won’t be attached to draft pick compensation because they were traded midseason. Others, like Kevin Gausman, accepted the QO last offseason and thus are ineligible to receive another one. Beyond them, the rest of the free agent pool would be available - perhaps there’s a way to cobble together enough value beyond the premium options to build a contender. This would certainly be a move that could help a farm system in desperate need of improvement.

At the same time, a high-end QO free agent is undoubtedly worth more than pick the Mets would lose, which we have a tendency to overvalue. It’s also important to remember that one 1st round pick isn’t going to make the difference between a good farm system and a bad one; it’s much more important for the Mets to modernize their development pipeline and find value beyond the top-end of the draft if they’re serious about producing talent in a similar way to the Dodgers, Astros, Rays, or Yankees.

Perhaps most importantly, we should note the marginal cost of adding additional QO free agents. If a team is willing to sign one QO player and forfeit their 2nd highest draft pick, they should be more willing to sign a second QO player and forfeit their 3rd highest pick due to the reduced marginal cost. It makes much more sense to go all in on a single offseason, adding as many high-end talents as possible at reduced draft pick penalties each time, rather than continually punting valuable picks to make splashes in free agency. This is doubly true for the Mets this year; if they’re willing to give up the 1st, they should absolutely be willing to give up their 2nd and 3rd even if that takes them well beyond the luxury tax.

The worst possible outcome is the half-measure path that this franchise has so often taken. Signing only one QO free agent at the cost of a first round pick but then failing to add more would be an abject disaster. The team likely still would not have made the improvements necessary to be a real contender while also sacrificing an incredibly valuable draft asset but then failing to capitalize on the reduced marginal cost of subsequent additions. Hopefully this sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish decision is in the past, though the decisions made in the first year of the Steve Cohen era offer little reassurance.