Jacob deGrom is the gamble the new Mets had to take
The Mets had alternatives. Kind of.
They could have waited out Jacob deGrom, tried to sign him next offseason or the one after, when he would have been a free agent. There would have been a cost associated with that, however, in goodwill and perception and perhaps ultimately the financial bottom line. There would have been a cost for yet another new administration attempting the latest reset to prove it is not running the Same Old Mets.
Instead, the Mets took a risk that in total dollars is eerie, since the $137.5 million the Mets guaranteed Jacob deGrom is the same once bestowed Johan Santana. At the time Santana signed that six-year extension — as the final element to complete a trade from Minnesota — he was about to turn 29 and viewed as a durable, great ace, with two Cy Youngs in his recent past.
Santana had a brilliant debut season with the Mets, followed by two really good ones, threw the only no-hitter in team history and spent the final three seasons of the contract mainly not pitching due to injury — or pitching well below his career standard.
Santana’s is one of four $100 million-plus contracts the Mets have signed along with Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Yoenis Cespedes. None have gone as the Mets hoped. Neither did free-agent deals with aces Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine. Dwight Gooden faded too quickly, Generation K never was. The Mets sure know the dangers of large contracts, in general, and the perils of pitching, in particular.
Yet, the Mets had to sign this five-year deal with deGrom. Because he is a good bet relative to pitching. Because of what this organization has been and where they hope they are going now. Ultimately, because if not deGrom, who?
DeGrom resided in the uncomfortable middle ground of two years from free agency. Extensions had been received by high-end starters in recent weeks who were either several years from free agency (Aaron Nola, Luis Severino, Blake Snell) or about to enter their walk year (Miles Mikolas, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander). That left deGrom with less leverage. Yet, still plenty.
The hiring of Brodie Van Wagenen was the latest permutation of the Mets trying to veer from the combination of bad baseball and bad news that has so beset Wilpon ownership. Van Wagenen’s mantra was put the player first. He believed that was the right way to win, in part because it would keep the organization focused on a single, simple principle. He believes it will improve morale and performance and — just as vital — avoid the mixed messages and downright slapstick antics that have so enwrapped the Mets when they lose discipline on what is truly important.
For the most part, the honeymoon was working. The roster was upgraded, the behind-the-scenes needs of a modern organization bulked up and the players happily championed. Then as spring closed, the Mets wound up in a dispute with a backup to the backup catcher (Devin Mesoraco) and publicly criticized by Noah Syndergaard (serving as a spokesman for many on the club) for not getting a deGrom deal done and for a nonsensical multi-city, multi-means-of-transportation end of spring training that was worsened by a classic stupid Met trick — a three-plus-hour delay in Sarasota (where no Mets wanted to be) to get a plane part to get them to Syracuse (where no Mets wanted to go).
You don’t guarantee $137.5 million because you have been temporarily Thorred.
You don’t guarantee $137.5 million and buy out three free-agent years because the most important Met would have been disenchanted, as would his teammates (hardly player first) had deGrom reached Thursday’s season-opening matchup against Washington’s Max Scherzer without an extension.
You guarantee $137.5 million because you think it is good business with the right guy — and the fringe benefits involve overall morale and devaluing nuisance stories.
DeGrom, 31 in June, already has endured Tommy John surgery, but his pitching coach, Dave Eiland, told me: “[DeGrom] is smooth, fluid, athletic. He is going to be a top-of-the-rotation guy for a good 5-6 more years.” A scout said to me, “Most days it looks like deGrom is just playing catch when he is on the mound, he is so smooth.”
There were probably similar sentiments way back about Santana. But this can’t be a zero-risk business, not for a New York team. Not for a New York team that wants to change its image from penny-pinching losers. If you are the New York team you want all to see, then deGrom is the one whom you walk out on the tightrope for: homegrown, athletic, fan/clubhouse favorite, elite, low maintenance. He defines what the Mets want their player-first brand to be.
So, if not him, who?
Which is why the Mets had alternatives, but not really.
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