The Mets just committed to paying Francisco Lindor $341 million over ten years, starting in 2022. That is not only the third-largest contract in MLB history, but it’s more than twice the amount paid to David Wright, who previously held the franchise record for the largest contract signed.
The Mets are now acting like the big-market team many thought they could be, and with the richest owner in baseball on their side, Lindor shouldn’t be the only star player to whom they offer a long-term deal. That is the good news. But the bad news is that the Mets have a lot of key players who might not be on the Mets next year without quick action and a lot of spending. Let’s take a look at extension candidates for the Mets heading into this season.
The most pressing candidates
Michael Conforto: The Mets’ star right fielder becomes a free agent after this season and now stands as the team’s most important extension candidate. Unlike Lindor, Conforto has not ruled out the possibility of negotiating an extension during the regular season. But Conforto prefers not to talk about it at this point, and the Mets don’t seem to have engaged Conforto beyond their initial offer. Complicating discussions is Conforto’s agent Scott Boras, who famously prefers to let his clients enter free agency rather than signing an extension while still under contract.
It would likely be a shrewd move for Conforto, who not only is very good at hitting baseballs, but is pretty clearly the best outfielder hitting free agency. It is my opinion that Conforto is severely undervalued as a player in the eyes of the public. But front offices have access to advanced numbers that many fans don’t look at, and there’s a very good chance a team will offer Conforto above market price for his services.
Luckily for Mets fans, there may be no better team to do that than the Mets. With the team currently $12 million under the luxury tax threshold for 2021 with at least another $20 million coming off the books for 2022, the team can absolutely extend Conforto even if they choose to remain under the threshold. What might prevent them from doing so is another team’s desperation to make a headline move in the offseason by offering Conforto much more than the Mets are willing to offer, especially with the Mets having so many other players on the roster they might want to extend.
But if there’s one player the team should prioritize, it’s Conforto. He is the team’s longest-tenured position player and is on his way to becoming one of the franchise’s all-time outfielders. On a team with a handful of sincere MVP candidates, one could make a good argument for Conforto being the team’s best position player, and if the Mets don’t treat him that way, some other team will. It’s tough to say where Conforto may end up next season, but fans may have to prepare for the possibility of losing Conforto in the offseason.
Noah Syndergaard: Syndergaard’s offseason surgery in 2020 not only set back his season, but also his impending contract negotiations. Much of Syndergaard’s future earning potential depends upon his effectiveness when he returns later in the summer: if Thor can still throw, the Mets will probably offer him a lot of money to stay in Queens.
Luckily for Syndergaard, there is recent precedent of pitchers earning big contracts after receiving Tommy John surgery, most notably Steven Strasburg and Syndergaard’s teammate Jacob deGrom, though Syndergaard’s timeline is much more hurried than deGrom’s was. Syndergaard has also been throwing consistent bullpen sessions and the team seems optimistic about his return, though considering the franchise’s track record for reporting injuries no one should be blamed for not trusting that prognosis.
Syndergaard’s best chance at a big extension lies in his ability to bolster the rotation later in the season. If he rides on a dragon into Citi Field and looks like the Syndergaard of yore with some key playoff starts added in, the team should offer him the bag. But until then, there likely won’t be much word about where he will end up in 2022.
Marcus Stroman: The lukewarm reception Stroman has received in New York is at least in part due to some unfair expectations. Stroman is probably not the top-tier staff ace he showed flashes of being with Toronto and with Team USA during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, but he can still be a solid starter in the top half of a contending team’s rotation. He posted a career-high 3.9 fWAR in 2019, and after opting out of the 2020 season, he’s looking to repeat that success in a contract year.
Considering the Mets’ success this season will depend largely depend on a healthy and effective starting rotation, especially with the weaknesses in the bullpen, Stroman has a lot to gain with a successful 2021. And with plus-defenders Lindor and Jeff McNeil now manning the middle of the infield full-time, Stroman’s ground ball inducing stuff should play better than it ever has.
Good starting pitching is harder than ever to come by on the free agent market, so there will be many suitors for Stroman if he enters free agency after the season. It’s entirely possible that the New York native and childhood Mets fan will give the franchise a hometown discount, but if he pitches well enough, a deep-pocketed team might offer more than the Mets are willing to give. Whatever the case, Stroman has more time than Syndergaard this season to establish himself as the team’s number two starter, and with some luck he will be so for many years to come.
Eligible, but unlikely candidates
What’s the opposite of an extension candidate? In the Mets case, it’s Jeurys Familia and Dellin Betances, who will both likely become free agents in the offseason. Barring some unexpected jump in performance over the course of the season, the Mets are likely more excited to get their combined $18 million salary off the books for next season than willing to offer them contract extensions. The same goes for Aaron Loup, who is only one a one-year deal and may pitch year-to-year for the rest of his career.
With Kevin Pillar holding a player option for 2022, the only other impending free agent who stands as a borderline extension candidate is Jonathan Villar. The 29-year-old has shown flashes of excellence throughout his career and offers the Mets a level of defensive versatility matched only by Luis Guillorme. If Villar steals a lot of bases and provides a reliable bat off the bench, the Mets may consider him a valuable piece on a contending team. Of course, if Villar proves his worth on the Mets, the likelihood increases of a team better suited to offer him a starting position and a big contract. Whether he does well or not, Villar could very well play elsewhere next season.
Pete Alonso: Brodie van Wagenen did well by Alonso by bringing him up for Opening Day in 2019 instead of manipulating his service time. If Alonso regains his rookie year form and blossoms into the generational power hitter he has the potential to become, the Mets should consider extending their goodwill by extending the Polar Bear.
Alonso doesn’t become a free agent until the end of the 2024 season and isn’t even yet eligible for arbitration, but there is recent precedent for teams offering monstrous contracts to their young franchise cornerstones. The Braves signed both Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuña Jr. to multi-year extensions before either player was close to reaching free agency. The Padres did the same with Fernando Tatis Jr. despite Tatis appearing in less than a full season’s worth of games over his three-year career. The Nationals would be wise to do the same with Juan Soto, who enters free agency the same year as Alonso.
If the Mets think Alonso can be a player on the level of Acuña, Tatis, and Soto—and there’s a reasonable belief that he can be—exploring an extension would most certainly be worth it. After all, the team talked up Alonso as a franchise player and future captain in just his rookie season, and Alonso supported their marketing with one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time. None of this matters if Alonso’s 2020 is more reflective of his true value, but if he can repeat the success of 2019, it’ll be up to the team to invest in their own words.
Edwin Díaz: Díaz is set to hit free agency after the 2022 season, and with the league’s now-verified hesitancy to paying relief pitchers, the likelihood of Díaz negotiating a contract before then is pretty slim. But the one thing working in his favor is the shaky state of the Mets bullpen, one in which Díaz currently stands as the team’s best option. If he burns through the league like he did in 2018 and the back-half of 2020, the Mets might consider locking him up long-term, but the team has more pressing needs at the moment.
Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, Dom Smith: All of the points made about Alonso also apply to McNeil, Nimmo, and Smith, though with less exuberance. Alonso has a higher ceiling than any other young position player on the team, but it’s not unreasonable to think that McNeil could be a perennial batting title candidate, or Nimmo an All-Star level corner outfielder, or Smith a legitimate MVP contender. This would require a level of performance we haven’t quite seen yet from any of these players, but stranger things have happened.
It’s a very good problem to have so many talented players in line for big deals, and there’s no better way to address the problem than with a super-wealthy owner who has publicly declared a willingness to spend money. Fitting all of these players into the team’s future plans will be next to impossible, but for the first time in a long time the Mets look to have a promising present and a bright tomorrow.