The Mets are gambling with the upside play.
They did it to some degree with Trevor May, to a larger one with James McCann and ticked it up even a few more notches in reaching an agreement with Taijuan Walker on a multi-year contract.
The Mets have guaranteed that threesome important roles – and $78 million – hoping that a shortened 2020 was a true indicator of who they are now and into at least the short-term future. It also means they didn’t guarantee anything to more proven/talented options such Liam Hendriks, J.T. Realmuto and Trevor Bauer.
And wasn’t one of the advantages of Steve Cohen supposed to be that the Mets could stop accepting second- and third- and fourth-best alternatives?
Imagine on Nov. 10 – the day of Cohen’s introductory press conference that so stirred the optimism of Mets fans – you would have been told the Mets will be signing none (ZERO) of the top six free agents this offseason. That would have felt impossible, right?
Now, the Mets did trade for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco and, who knows, before this spring training is done, maybe they will be announcing long-term extensions for Lindor, possibly even Michael Conforto.
But this is the offseason in which most teams were generally sitting out of big-time free agency. The Yankees had their eyes only on retaining DJ LeMahieu, the Dodgers only on an upside play for Bauer and retaining Justin Turner. When will the next winter be when the Mets have this little competition at the top of the market?
Yet, these Mets invested in volume as much as anything. Walker’s will be the eighth major league free agent deal by the Mets. Only the Cubs and Giants, with nine, have more. The total cost is $94.15 million, less than the Yankees ($104.15 million), who we think of as having an inactive offseason. Still, it is the fifth most spent on free agency so far.
What the Mets are hoping is that they surrounded a strong nucleus led by Conforto, Jacob deGrom, Edwin Diaz, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith with a superstar in Lindor via trade, plus the kind of overall depth they have been burned for lacking these past few years. Within that depth, they have seen the potential for more than complementary players.
Since May returned from Tommy John surgery in 2018, he has been very good, but that includes two seasons (2018 and ‘20) of 24 appearances each and a grand total of 113 innings in three years. He posted a 3.10 ERA in that time with 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings. With Seth Lugo (elbow) out for at least a month of the regular season, May might have to be Mr. April.
McCann enjoyed two strong seasons with the White Sox, notably last year when his OPS soared to .896 and all the data on pitch framing began to rate him better. But questions persist if he will hit right-handed pitching well, plus he has faded in each of the past two years as his workload mounted – and he is the clear No. 1 catcher with the Mets, which he was not last year with Chicago.
Walker pitched 53 1/3 innings last season, which isn’t much, but is more than he had produced through an injury haze since 2017. His ERA working 11 starts for Seattle and Toronto in 2020 was 2.70. But his fielding independent ERA was 4.56 because the opposition had just a .243 batting average on balls in play. An average that low usually indicates at least an element of luck, especially for a pitcher who walks a drop too many and strikes out a drop too few like Walker. And the Mets, even with the Lindor upgrade, do not project to be a strong defensive team in 2021.
Still, the Mets saw enough to guarantee Walker two years at $20 million (or three at $23 million if Walker triggers a third-year option; the contract was agreed to pending a physical). The Mets see a starter at 28 ready perhaps to deliver prime years of health and at least mid-rotation sturdiness.
In their idealized scenario, the Mets wanted to have a rotation that put a legitimate starter candidate at Triple-A, which they can now do with either Joey Lucchesi or more probably David Peterson behind deGrom, Carrasco, Marcus Stroman and Walker; with Noah Syndergaard due around June after Tommy John surgery.
A Walker who can give the Mets, say, 140 innings and a 4.00 ERA serves the purposes of a team that believes its strengths are deGrom leading a strong rotation front three (perhaps four when Syndergaard returns), a top offense and a capable bullpen that has a chance to be a lot better than that. And if 2020 was real for Walker and not an aberration, then the Mets receive a strong starter – not to mention a quality set-up man in May and a frontline catcher in McCann.
This is the upside play. The Mets are betting on depth overall and that 2020 was just the beginning for the three most expensive outside free agents they bought this offseason.