By Jason Keidel
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While the Cleveland Indians just reached the World Series with some unexpected wizardry, it was their first dominant squad of the ’90s that could make you think of the Mets. At least as a business model.
When general manager John Hart took over the club, he found himself blessed with a gaggle of burgeoning stars, like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Charles Nagy. And rather than sweat out arbitration hearings, which often turn into ugly jousts over small amounts of money — like the recent spat between the Yankees and reliever Dellin Betances — leaving bruised egos and strained friendships, Hart began to secure his young studs for far more than they were entitled, yet far less than they would have bagged on the open market.
Fast-forward two decades, and look at the Mets, who may not have a Ramirez or Thome, but a lot more than Nagy.
The Mets are boiling over with brilliant young arms. But among their five prized pitchers — Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler — only two warrant some serious financial forethought. That would be their two aces — Syndergaard and deGrom.
Within the Mets’ starting staff, there are some serious gems, but some also have cracks. Syndergaard is the only one among the gifted young hurlers who hasn’t had a serious surgery (Tommy John or otherwise). Wheeler is finally back on the mound and blasted 97 mph on the gun last week. But it was his first start at Citi Field in 925 days. So even assuming he returns to form, only God knows when that will happen.
Harvey, who posted an encouraging first start, also hadn’t pitched in a while, since July 2016. Harvey has had Tommy John and is even missing a rib, removed to alleviate pressure on a nerve, a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome. (Better men than yours truly will have to explain it.)
Matz, a most-coveted commodity as a wildly gifted lefty, seems to have his mail forwarded to the DL, and is already missing time before his season started. Maybe Matz will put all the tweaks and scars behind him this year, but it’s a bit ominous when young pitchers can’t pitch for an entire season without limping off the mound with some ailment.
Which leaves Syndergaard and deGrom. As if to make a monetary statement out of the gate, the hulking Syndegaard fired a first pitch for the ages, the fastest opening pitch on Opening Day on record (99 mph). And deGrom isn’t far behind, in terms of talent or his ability to short-circuit the radar gun.
Syndergaard is making an absurdly low $605,000 this season. His situation could be a bit delicate, as he’s not allowed to hit the market for four years, when he’s 29 years old. Syndergaard may see 2022 as his lone chance to grab an epic deal. Or he may embrace the security of a six-year deal now, in case he gets plagued by the very injury bug that has befallen so many of his teammates.
DeGrom is also vastly underpaid, but is at least making $4 million this season. Even older than Syndergaard, deGrom isn’t an unrestricted free agent until 2021, when he turns 32 years old. If anyone would — or should — be open to a quick, lucrative deal under market value, it’s deGrom. He could test the market in three years, but if the sport in general, and this staff in particular, have taught us anything, it’s that a pitching arm, no matter how sublime, is one pitch from snapping.
And the Mets will have the money to spend.
While their payroll is about $154 this year (according to Spotrac), that number is slashed in half next year, with their payroll plunging to $71 million in 2018.
Just a few deals account for much of that cash. The contracts of Curtis Granderson ($15 million), Neil Walker ($17.2 million) and Jay Bruce ($13 million) alone gobble up over $45 million this season. All three are unrestricted free agents next season and not likely to return as Mets, at least not at those numbers.
The Mets have very few financial anchors around their necks for the foreseeable future. Yoenis Cespedes is the only regular making colossal cash (at least $29 million per year from 2018 to 2020.
Yes, there’s David Wright. And there’s nothing you can do about it. The aging third basemen will make $67 million between now and the end of 2020, an implicit parachute for time served. And Wright was such a good player and good guy for so long that you really can forgive him and the Mets. Besides, his salary won’t keep the Mets from doing anything vital.
So sign Syndergaard. Get the bitter winter taste out of his mouth, when you shorted him the nine grand he requested before the season. Your best pitcher shouldn’t make one-seventh of the guy behind him in the rotation, and certainly should not make $4.5 million less than Harvey, who has long lost his sobriquet and facade as the Dark Knight of Gotham.
Then sign deGrom. Get two aces for the price of one. And make the Mets competitive for the next five years, if not beyond.
Please follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel