What free agency is saying about Mets, Jacob deGrom’s value

When a team clinches a playoff berth, two quotes almost always come to my mind.

The first is from Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, who told me several years ago — before Los Angeles had won its only championship since 1988 in 2020 — “If only one team has a successful year (the one that wins the title), that’s miserable.”

Friedman was offering his take on the cliché to stop and smell the roses. That there are triumphs along the way during the season — big wins, clinching a postseason berth, winning a division, capturing rounds of the playoffs — and that appreciating them and reveling in them is important because they are so difficult to achieve.

The other came about a quarter of a century ago from Paul O’Neill when he was amid the Yankees dynasty. “When you win, everyone had a good year,” O’Neill told me. His point was two-fold: One, even players who had a poor statistical season can cull a positive difference-making moment or three from a winning year. Second, it was a way to acknowledge that it does take a village, that a Homer Bush in 1998 or a Jose Vizcaino in 2000 could feel like a contributor even within a galaxy of stars.

As I watched the Mets celebrate their playoff clincher Monday night, both of these quotes came back to me. I know Steve Cohen and his group have bigger dreams than simply a tournament invitation. But so much has gone so wrong since the Mets last made the playoffs in 2016 that it was worthwhile to recognize and enjoy not just how successfully the Mets had navigated this season (to date), but how professionally.

The O’Neill quote made me think about how at timely moments in this season Travis Jankowski and Adonis Medina helped the Mets weather short-handed situations and win some coin-flip games.

The Mets celebrated reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2016 on Monday night in Milwaukee.
Getty Images

Yet, while watching the Mets relish the clinch in Milwaukee, I had a contrary thought: The Mets were going to play important October games because their best players universally were terrific. Again, that does not fit the mode of recent Mets clubs. Cohen authorized a by-far team-record payroll in 2022, and this was like the big-budget movie where you see it all on the screen.

The Mets’ stars played like stars. In the first season of his 10-year, $341 million extension, Francisco Lindor is going to finish around fifth for NL MVP. Max Scherzer, the highest per-annum player in history, might get down-ballot Cy Young votes. Edwin Diaz may get down-ballot votes for both MVP and Cy Young. Jacob deGrom arrived late to the season, but has pitched excellently. Pete Alonso is likely to finish in the top 10 in NL MVP voting.

In particular, free agency is a tough game. You can be the Tigers, decide you are ready to make a move upward in the standings, open up your wallet to guarantee Eduardo Rodriguez and Javier Baez $217 million — and have it turn out worse and worser. It was the kind of disaster that finally cost GM Al Avila his job.

The Mets signed five major league free agent contracts in the offseason totaling $258.5 million, and went 5-for-5 with Scherzer, Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, Starling Marte and Adam Ottavino. None tanked. Each has been worth the investment, to date. Scherzer has pitched like an ace. Canha, Escobar and Marte deepened both the Mets lineup and the sense of professionalism in the locker room. Ottavino has been the sturdiest setup man to Diaz.

All but Ottavino have future years on the contracts, so the final grades are not in. For luxury-tax purposes, the quintet costs the Mets $90.05 million this season; the Fangraphs function that converts Wins Above Replacement to dollar figures has the fivesome worth $102.1 million in 2022 going into the weekend. That reflects a good investment on essentially 20 percent of the roster.

Mark Canha hits an RBI single in the fourth inning.
Mark Canha is part of a free-agent haul for the Mets that has seen every addition contribute in a significant way.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Did the Mets get lucky? Do they know something? A combination? I thought I would note the Mets success as a way to use 3Up to take a look at how the top of the free-agent market from last offseason fared and see if there are any lessons to be derived:

1. Corey Seager, Rangers, 10 years, $325 million. The right way to think about this is in conjunction with the third-largest signing of the offseason: the seven-year, $175 million pact for Marcus Semien. Together, they represent a half-a-billion-dollar investment by Texas in its middle infield.

And those two players have performed well. Yet the Rangers are still a third-place team 19 games under .500. Still, the Rangers can say that with Semien and Seager they have put down tent poles to begin to change their losing ways.

The Rockies, on the other hand, signed Kris Bryant to the second-largest free agent contract of the offseason (seven years at $182 million), and that has been a calamity. An injured Bryant has hardly played for a last-place Colorado club.

Baez tied the Red Sox’s Trevor Story (six years, $140 million) for the fifth-largest pact of the offseason. Baez has hit poorly and been sloppy in the field, and in conjunction with Rodriguez (five years, $77 million) has contributed to a last-place Tigers team.

Javier Báez #28 of the Detroit Tigers in the field during the second inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on May 1, 2022 in Los Angeles, California.
After giving Javier Baez a $140 million contract, the Tigers find themselves in a similar spot at the bottom of the AL Central.
Diamond Images/Getty Images

The struggles of Baez and Bryant aren’t part of a larger 2016 Cubs championship thing, because Kyle Schwarber (Phillies) and Anthony Rizzo (Yankees) have been good free-agent buys.

All of these clubs could talk about the need to add name recognition to excite fans and sell tickets.

But when it comes to free agency, one key has to be to avoid delusion and be brutally honest about where in the contention curve you are as a franchise. Should clubs that were going to be this challenged to make the playoffs be making these kinds of long-term commitments rather than saving the money to augment a contender when that comes along? I don’t want to discourage improving the team, spending and exciting the fan base. But there is a way to do that with shorter commitments and less risk.

The Nationals signed Jayson Werth for seven years at $126 million after the 2010 season when they were a losing team. He served as a fulcrum toward seriousness and contention for Washington, and his signing often is cited by clubs who make these kinds of plays. But for every one of these types of signings by an also-ran that is Werth it (sorry), most are not. And the smaller the market, the more perilous this path.

For example, the Giants and Red Sox are expected to be bold this offseason after going from 2021 playoff teams to among the most disappointing clubs this year. But if they make mistakes, they will absorb it regardless. Conversely, the Diamondbacks put a lot of interesting young players into the majors this year. Should they aggressively add veterans to try to speed up contention? That is more dubious. It is also unlikely.

2. Scherzer, Mets, three years, $130 million. It was the most guaranteed to a pitcher last offseason, and the $43.3 million is the most per annum ever given any player. Two stints on the injured list added imperfection to the signing. But overall, the Mets are overjoyed with Scherzer’s work and leadership.

New York Mets starting pitcher Max Scherzer (21) pitches in the first inning when the New York Mets played the Colorado Rockies Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022, at Citi Field in Queens.
Max Scherzer’s ability to perform at an All-Star level and provide leadership has given the Mets the return they wanted on their $130 million investment.
Robert Sabo

The performances by Scherzer, Justin Verlander and even Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright — all of whom signed as free agents last offseason — will encourage contenders especially not to be scared away by the older starter. That should benefit Verlander and deGrom in free agency this offseason and also Kershaw and Wainwright, though like last offseason, the assumption will be that if those two continue playing, they will stay where they are — Kershaw with the Dodgers and Wainwright with the Cardinals.

The injury risk, however, is real. Scherzer, Verlander, Kershaw and Wainwright each have been on the IL at least once this year, and deGrom missed most of this season. But it isn’t as if younger starters have decoded how to stay healthy. These guys have shown that knowing how to pitch has great advantages. And it isn’t like Verlander and deGrom have made concessions with their stuff.

Both deGrom and Verlander could be in play to approach or top Scherzer’s $43.3 million annual salary.

3. Carlos Correa, three years, $105.3 million, Twins. It was the 10th-most guaranteed last offseason and the least given in total dollars to any of the touted five shortstops in the free-agent class. Seager, Semien, Baez and Story received larger contracts (Semien and Story have played second base).

There is another elite class looming with Correa and Xander Bogaerts expected to opt out of their deals to join Dansby Swanson and Trea Turner.

Will it mean anything that none of the Big Five shortstops from last year’s class are on a playoff team this year — or even a team likely to finish with a winning record? Only Baez was utterly regrettable, though the Red Sox’s deal with Story certainly has not been a win.

Carlos Correa
Carlos Correa has played well, but like his fellow top free-agent shortstop signees, it appears he will be at home during the playoffs.
Getty Images

Correa has been much like himself offensively for the Twins, but not as good defensively. He is believed to have turned down a $275 million overture from the Tigers — with eyes on topping $300 million — before settling on a deal with escape hatches after both the 2022 and 2023 seasons. He only turned 28 on Thursday.

How many teams will be looking for shortstops? That is tricky because it is tied to whether the Braves (Swanson) and Dodgers (Turner) retain their guys. If the Red Sox lose Bogaerts, Story theoretically can flip to shortstop.

The Yankees ignored last offseason’s shortstop class, believing Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe were close. They are closer now. But what if the Yankees lose Aaron Judge in free agency? Would that motivate them to buy Correa or Turner because there is not much impact to be found on the free-agent outfield market after Judge?

The Angels can use a shortstop, but they have so much money tied up in Anthony Rendon and Mike Trout and have to figure out what they are doing with Shohei Ohtani — if they trade Ohtani, getting a shortstop back would seem a near necessity. The Cubs have had Nico Hoerner emerge, yet there are agents who believe Chicago will be interested in Correa. The Giants could be players here and move Brandon Crawford to second. Could the Red Sox keep Story at second and try to land a shortstop?

Once more, the free-agent class will not be, um, short on this kind of intrigue.