The Mets had a Trevor Bauer budget. Now, back to the original plan.
Steve Cohen and Sandy Alderson had stated earlier this offseason a desire to keep payroll under the $210 million luxury-tax threshold. But in Bauer they saw opportunity — a high-end talent at a time when few teams were willingly engaging at the top of the market. They theorized that if Bauer were his 2020 NL Cy Young version, it would change the Mets’ trajectory from contender to something more immediately.
So the Mets made the largest offer — three years at $105 million. The average annual value of $35 million would have projected them beyond the tax threshold before addressing any other offseason issue or budgeting for trade deadline additions. Bauer took $3 million less overall from the Dodgers to gain: his hometown, a more stable franchise, surer winner and cutting-edge pitching shop.
Without Bauer, the Mets return to their previous concept. Thus, if you are thinking about how the Mets could spend $105 million overall, $40 million this year (which would have been Bauer’s 2021 Mets salary) or go over the threshold, that is unlikely. They have 22 players currently under major league contracts for $162 million-ish. Complete the roster, add the formula for benefits and set aside money for call-ups and in-season trades, and the Mets have perhaps $25 million-ish to go before edging over the threshold. A familiar aside: The Mets, with Cohen’s money, should not treat the threshold like a de facto salary cap. If they need to go over to improve the team within reason, they should do so.
Some thoughts on where the team should go next:
1. Talk to Jacob deGrom. It is understood around the Mets that deGrom may not be all that pleased with his contract and that the Mets were offering more to someone in Bauer who had never done anything for them. DeGrom was signed in bizarre circumstances. He was long represented by Brodie Van Wagenen, who became Mets GM after the 2018 season. By rule, Van Wagenen had to recuse himself from the negotiations, but if you are deGrom, you know Van Wagenen was aware of what it would take to get a deal done. In spring training 2019, deGrom signed for five years at $137.5 million. But nearly 40 percent was deferred for 15 years, dramatically lowering the current value.
The Mets owe deGrom nothing more. If he would have been hurt, the Mets would have had to pay every dollar. And this was not the Cohen/Alderson administration that signed him. But it is this administration that dabbled with Bauer.
DeGrom can opt out after next season. The Mets can deal with it then. But do they want to risk, say, bidding against the Dodgers, Yankees and about-to-have-tons-of-available-cash Giants plus others. They have exclusivity now to keep the second-best pitcher in their history in the fold and happy.
If deGrom does not opt out, his contract has four years at $130 million left — lowered, though, by the deferrals. How about the Mets offer to tear that up and give a four-year, deferral-free $144 million pact with a fifth-year option for $36 million or an $8 million buyout? The total guarantee of $152 million is an average value of $38 million, pushes deGrom past Gerrit Cole’s $36 million for the largest average ever. Can deGrom try to chase more? He could, but first that comes with pitching well at ages 33 and 34. The offer is to lose the deferrals and become the highest-paid player now.
2. Try a cost-neutral offer to the Brewers for Lorenzo Cain. The Mets are talking to free agent Jackie Bradley Jr. about center field. He is a winning player who brings elite defense. But the question in 2021 remains if there is no NL DH how would the Mets find enough at-bats for Bradley, Brandon Nimmo, Pete Alonso and Dom Smith among center, left and first?
The same would be true if you replace Bradley with Cain. Here come the buts: The Mets should offer Jeurys Familia, Dellin Betances, Brad Brach and a good-but-not-elite prospect (think someone like Franklyn Kilome). Familia, Betances and Brach count $17.375 million toward the tax payroll in 2021, Cain $17 million. So doing it this way allows the Mets to have more 2021 budget to add, say, even a Trevor Rosenthal to a bullpen with Edwin Diaz, Miguel Castro, Aaron Loup, Seth Lugo and Trevor May.
Would the small-market Brewers do this to escape Cain’s $18 million salary in 2022 when he will be 36? It doesn’t hurt to ask. Cain’s righty bat (Bradley’s a lefty), age and that he opted out of most of last season would make it easier to, say, start him in 110-120 games and rotate the other bats if there is no DH, yet play his brilliant defense late when he doesn’t start.
3. Take a starting rotation gamble. The Mets improved this offseason — especially up the middle, particularly with Francisco Lindor. But the Braves are still likely better in a stacked NL East and the Dodgers are certainly better overall in the NL. The Mets should think what, if it works, would close the gap.
I have no illusions about James Paxton. He doesn’t stay healthy. He is all risk. But as opposed to any other starter on the market, especially one who might do a one-year deal, the lefty has the best stuff. Can you dream on a scenario in which Paxton can get you to June-ish for Noah Syndergaard’s return, and both are healthy for September/October to join deGrom, Carlos Carrasco and Marcus Stroman? It is a rotation that could win any short series.
4. A no vote on Justin Turner. With Bauer, the Dodgers project to a by far major league high $237 million-ish payroll. Perhaps they shut the spigot off now. That would take the most obvious landing place for Turner out of play. It would create a chance for Alderson to reverse perhaps his worst first-term move — non-tendering Turner after the 2013 season. Turner has followed with seven borderline Hall-of-Fame seasons with the Dodgers.
But he will play at 36 next year and almost certainly will take a multi-year deal to land (remember that Robinson Cano’s salary returns for 2022-23 to further burden the payroll). The Mets should not risk letting him go at the wrong time and bringing him back at the wrong time. J.D. Davis is the on-paper third baseman. I am curious, though, if Luis Guillorme has some Gio Urshela in him. There is not third base power possible with him. But he has great hands on both sides of the ball that I would want to see get an expanded chance, especially since third base is a position that should have in-season available trade candidates if the Mets need to fix this on the fly.