Coming off a disastrous 2018 season, one in which they crawled to a 77-85 record and a 4th place finish in the NL East, the New York Mets are poised to bounce back in 2019 thanks to the convergence of numerous factors working in their favor. To start, the Mets possess the single best pitcher in baseball (and one of the most valuable players overall) in Jacob deGrom, who is fresh off one of the greatest pitching seasons in baseball history. Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard, who each had flashes of brilliance in their own right, join deGrom to form one of the most lethal pitching trios in baseball. All three, along with 4th starter Steven Matz, are still under team control and due for raises this offseason. MLB Trade Rumors predicts the following bumps for Mets starters:
Jacob deGrom $7.4MM » » $12.9MM
Noah Syndergaard $2.9MM » » $5.9MM
Zack Wheeler $1.9MM » » $5.3MM
Steven Matz $577K » » $3.0MM
In all, that’s a jump of about $14.3MM if the actual increases fall in the general ballpark of the projections. Other Mets due for a raise are Michael Conforto (projected $4.4MM) and Kevin Plawecki (1.3MM), which is an increase of about $4.5MM. The Mets can offset some of the cost by non-tendering Wilmer Flores and Travis d’Arnaud, their two other arbitration-eligible players, which would wipe off their roughly $6.85MM in combined salary. There’s been talk of maybe hanging onto d’Arnaud a bit in hopes of a trade due to the constant demand for catching depth around the league, but my best guess is that Brodie Van Wagenen will want to upgrade this position big time in the offseason. With Wilson Ramos and Yasmani Grandal on the market, the Mets can and should try to land a backstop with actual offensive potential. I would not be surprised to see the Mets sign switch-hitting Grandal, flip Kevin Plawecki to a team like Colorado for cash or low-level prospects, and run with a duo of Grandal and Nido for the year.Unfortunately, based on their track record, the Mets will probably spin Grandal as their premier signing for the offseason and will spend the rest of their resources bringing back Austin Jackson and signing low-impact relievers like Shawn Kelley or Bud Norris. Or, in even greater Mets fashion, they’d feign interest in Grandal and Ramos, only to sign Evan Gattis or Matt Wieters. Also, there is always the chance for a trade to acquire J.T. Realmuto of the floundering Miami Marlins (and a client of CAA Sports Agency). Realmuto’s price should be steep, but you never know what the Marlins could ask for after severely underselling players like Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna.
The one wildcard heading into this offseason is Brodie Van Wagenen, former sports agent/executive with CAA Sports and new Mets General Manager. Before accepting the position, Van Wagenen represented current Mets Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Yoenis Cespedes, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas and even Tim Tebow. As part of his agreement with the Mets, Van Wagenen has obviously stepped down from his position with CAA Sports and dropped all of his clients. Also, Van Wagenen said he will not take part in any future contract negotiations with current Mets that were once his clients. As of now, it’s confirmed that Omar Minaya will be retained to work alongside BVW, while the fates of John Ricco and J.P. Ricciardi are unknown despite both rumored to be taking part in next month’s Winter Meetings. At his introductory press conference, Van Wagenen made three things abundantly clear: he thinks the current roster has the building blocks of a winning team and expects to contend in 2019, he wants ownership to continue to take part in decision-making, and he plans on increasing the organizational use of analytics both on and off the field.
Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack with Van Wagenen. On one hand, this could be a progressive move by the Mets, hiring someone that is highly respected by both players and front offices around the league. Van Wagenen has built his reputation on groundbreaking deals in favor of his clients, including Robinson Cano’s massive deal in Seattle and Yoenis Cespedes’ most recent record-breaking signing with the Mets. Van Wagenen is clearly a fierce negotiator that makes out well in favor of the parties he represents. Having pre-existing positive connections in numerous MLB front offices could ease the transition into his new role and hopefully prevent other teams from thinking they can take advantage of the first time GM. Another positive could be his relationships with deGrom and Syndergaard. Both pitchers are incredibly rare talents that the Mets would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Declaring that the team wants to win now would lead one to believe that deGrom and Syndergaard won’t be dealt anytime soon, and his strong relationship with both could be beneficial in future negotiations, even if he’s only involved in the process through recommendations to his advisors. Finally, BVW’s willingness to add to the analytics department is a step in the right direction, though we’ll have to wait and see what this entails (and how much the Wilpons allow him to spend).
The same relationships mentioned before could also go on to haunt Van Wagenen early in his tenure with the Mets. Rather than acquire real talent as replacements, he may instead opt to stick with Todd Frazier and Jason Vargas longer than they deserve. Also, he will may strongly consider moving forward with a combination of Juan Lagares/Austin Jackson/another mediocre, cheap outfielder to bridge the gap until Cespedes comes back. Despite the amazing run he had when first coming to the team, Cespedes is now 33 and has an extensive injury history capped off by his recent surgeries on both heels. A forward thinking team would look for a long term replacement in the outfield (say, Bryce Harper) and would figure out what to do with Cespedes later. Hiring the agent that represented a large chunk of their players really feels like a Wilpon chess maneuver to yet again pass blame once things inevitably don’t go their way. Maybe they are as fed up as the fans, and maybe this move really was because Van Wagenen made the strongest pitch to get this franchise back to the postseason for the first time since 2016, but the Wilpons absolutely do not deserve that benefit of the doubt. Until it’s proven otherwise, this has the looks of a shady play by the owners of the Mets to employ the one man that has insider info and leverage against a few of their biggest stars.
For argument’s sake, let’s pretend Brodie Van Wagenen really will be given the reigns, or at the very least, will have a fruitful relationship with Jeff Wilpon that actually leads to real money being invested into the payroll. The optimist in me believes it actually could happen, starting as soon as this offseason. Yet again, the Wilpons are playing their usual game of not announcing a target payroll, but those with a brain could guess they don’t want it rising too far past last year’s $150MM. As noted above, the Mets need to brace themselves for about a $14-15MM jump combined from deGrom, Syndergaard, Wheeler, Matz, Conforto and Plawecki. By non-tendering d’Arnaud and Flores, that drops the number down to the $7-8.5MM range. Among the Mets’ expiring contracts are Devin Mesoraco, AJ Ramos, Jerry Blevins and Jose Reyes, and I would not expect any of the non-Austin Jackson expiring guys to be retained. In all, those expiring contracts made up about $35MM of last year’s payroll. Despite his “retirement,” David Wright won’t actually be retiring just yet and will most likely finish out the rest of his contract from the comfort of his home. Thankfully, that $20MM will be dropping to $15MM this upcoming season and $12MM in 2020. At this point, we’re now at about -$33MM compared to last year’s payroll. Juan Lagares, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Anthony Swarzak and Jason Vargas will all be making more money this year thanks to slightly back-loaded contracts. In total, their raises add up to $11.5MM, which has the grand total at approximately -$21.5MM going into the offseason. It doesn’t seem like much in today’s market, but if Van Wagenen can influence spending as a means to improve the roster, it gives the team an actual shot to make impactful moves.
The Mets will need a healthy 4th outfielder to pair with the trio of Conforto, Nimmo and Lagares heading into the year with Jay Bruce coming off a miserable season and likely being pushed towards first base full time. Austin Jackson could be brought back on a 1 year deal at the minimum to provide serviceable defense and absolutely no offense, so the Mets will likely fill their need there. A slightly better and more expensive version of Jackson would be Cameron Maybin from Seattle, who will provide a little bit more upside at the cost of about $4MM/year. If the Mets really want to get crazy, they could look to flip Juan Lagares at the Winter Meetings for anything they can get and then pursue Adam Jones, who just so happens to be a current client of none other than CAA Sports. Jones has had his superstar moments, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and likely poised to fall off a cliff statistically, not to mention Spotrac currently projects him to come at the price of about 4 years, $64MM ($16MM/year). My personal recommendation, if they don’t plan on making a real push for Bryce Harper, would be to go hard after A.J. Pollock and sacrifice the compensatory draft pick to sign him. At his best (and when healthy), Pollock provides great defense and speed while sprinkling in a strong amount of extra base hits. At 3 years and $44MM, the Mets could pay a little bit more than what Juan Lagares currently makes to get a huge upgrade at the position. It wouldn’t be the flashy move that all Mets fans are desperate for, but that kind of swap could be a creative way for Van Wagenen to bolster the current roster and solidify the top of the everyday lineup.
There are a lot of holes in this roster and weak points in the farm system, but perhaps none is of greater importance this year than the bullpen. Even after acquiring relief prospects in nearly every trade deal the past couple years, none have really stepped up to prove they are ready to face MLB hitters. If Van Wagenen is truly being limited in the amount he can spend this winter, my hope is that a large chunk of that budget goes towards bolstering the bullpen. Hypothetically, if the Mets chose to make the Lagares trade/Pollock signing, they’d be looking at around $20MM to spend. As I see it, they have two major approaches they can take with their bullpen: sign one of the premier relief pitchers on the market (i.e. Craig Kimbrel) plus a couple of lower-tier, middle relievers or opt for two or three cheaper relief options instead. Aside from Kimbrel, the only other relievers I’d feel even a little bit comfortable with in the closer role are Adam Ottavino and Zach Britton, but both are probably better suited to be set-up men at the current stage of their careers. Kimbrel looked shaky throughout the entire recent postseason run, but still should be looking at about $16.5MM per year over the course of 3-5 years. It’s a hefty price, but the 30 year old appears to still have a lot left in the tank and the Mets actually have an unusual penchant for acquiring big name closers. My ultimate pipe dream would be Edwin Diaz since the Mariners have hinted at fully tearing down in the near future, but his age and four more seasons of control would mean the price has to be a package centered around one or both of Peter Alonso and Andres Gimenez. After Van Wagenen’s recent comments about Peter Alonso being a “priority for the organization,” that type of deal seems to be off the table.
My prediction would be Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Tony Sipp. Again, this is an extremely optimistic prediction, but it’s one they actually could pull off. My belief is that Miller and Allen would both strongly consider joining Mickey Callaway’s team in hopes of rekindling the magic they had together in Cleveland. Miller will be expensive, likely in the $9-10MM per year range, but he’s coming off a year marred by injuries and his stuff finally looked hittable once again. The Mets sorely need a lefty in the pen and Miller has long been dominant against fellow southpaws. Miller would likely fill a multi-inning role, similar to his job in Cleveland, and take some of the pressure off Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman. Brodie Van Wagenen commented on his disappointment in the overuse of Lugo and Gsellman last season, so Miller would be the perfect move to backup his statements. Cody Allen is another beneficial target for the Mets due to his multiple years of closing experience and relationship with Mickey Callaway. Allen also is coming off a similarly poor year to Miller’s and may be looking to sign a cheap, one year deal (maybe $7-8MM?) in hopes of boosting his value and locking up a bigger deal next year. It would make all the sense in the world for Allen to come back to the pitching coach that was by his side for the best years of his career. Finally, Tony Sipp would be an additional lefty specialist for a team that’s likely moving on from their previous one (Jerry Blevins). Sipp is older than most on the market, so he shouldn’t be too expensive, but he is coming off a resurgent year for an Astros team that may not want to lose him. Of the three men, I think Sipp is the longest shot, and they could instead choose to just give more opportunities to their prospects. If Miller and Allen are the only moves made, that could be anywhere from $16-18MM against this year’s payroll, leaving about $2MM left until they hit last year’s total.
So to recap, I have the Mets trading away Juan Lagares, signing A.J. Pollock, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, and still coming in a little under last year’s total payroll. Obviously, there still is a gaping hole at catcher, but this just goes to show how much talent this regime can squeeze out of the limited resources they are given. If Brodie Van Wagenen can pull these moves off, or at least something comparable, that should be more than enough justification to show Jeff Wilpon that it would be in the team’s best interest to boost the payroll. If Yasmani Grandal can be had at around $10MM per year, the Mets need to jump at this chance to finally gain stability at one of the most important positions on the field. It’s one thing to ask for cost efficient, conservative moves from management. That would be perfectly acceptable and the Mets would still be able to field a competitive team with high upside. It’s entirely different, however, to simply avoid big name players for the sake of saving money and hide budgets for the sake of deceiving the public. The latter is deceptive, deceitful, grotesque and of course, the preferred method of none other than Jeff and Fred Wilpon. We may never reach a point where the Wilpons fade into the background as owners and leave the decision-making to the professionals, but we can reasonably make it to some middle ground where a balance exists. Any hope of reaching harmony in the Mets front office will hinge on a level-headed, well respected person working side-by-side with Jeff to bring the most out of him, and perhaps Brodie Van Wagenen is just the man for the job.