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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The Mets want to keep their ace, but he won’t come cheap

Jacob deGrom has been limited to 26 starts over the last two seasons because of injuries, but he has pitched well with a 1.90 E.R.A. in that span.

By James Wagner

Last Wednesday, the New York Mets formally announced their first major move of the offseason: the re-signing of closer Edwin Díaz to a five-year, $102 million contract, the largest for a relief pitcher in baseball history. The Mets, who won 101 games during the 2022 regular season, expect to compete for a playoff spot again next year, and a reliable late-innings reliever is essential for a top team.

But the Mets, who have numerous other players who reached free agency, have more work to do. Chief among them: trying to re-sign Jacob deGrom, the ace who exercised the opt-out clause in his five-year, $137.5 million contract extension, passing on $30.5 million in 2023 for the chance at getting a larger deal.

Even though he missed large chunks of the past two seasons with injuries, other teams will probably flock to deGrom, 34, a two-time National League Cy Young Award winner. In 156 1/3 innings over the past two seasons, he posted a 1.90 ERA. After he returned from a shoulder injury last season, he produced a 3.08 ERA in 11 starts and guided the Mets to their only win in their wild-card-round loss to the San Diego Padres.

Last winter, the Mets lured another ace who had multiple Cy Young Awards, Max Scherzer, to Flushing, New York, with a deal worth $130 million over three years, setting a record for highest average annual salary, at $43.3 million, despite Scherzer’s being 37 at the time.

Billy Eppler, the Mets’ general manager, said he spoke to deGrom before the team went home for the offseason after their early playoff exit. And before deGrom triggered his opt-out clause this week, Eppler said he and Stephen Veltman, deGrom’s agent, had a couple of conversations.

“We just kind of made a pact to stay in touch,” Eppler said last Tuesday at the annual Major League Baseball general managers’ meetings, held this year in Las Vegas.

Eppler declined to quantify his level of optimism that the Mets could retain their star, but he did say deGrom had expressed a desire to stay with the only organization he has ever known. Eppler added: “There’s a good deal of interest there on his part. That was articulated a number of times throughout the season and reiterated in our most recent conversation.”

There are several teams around MLB in need of starting pitching, including the Texas Rangers, who have a new ballpark and the resources to attract a top free agent veteran starter like Clayton Kershaw, a Dallas native, or deGrom. Signing deGrom would very likely require a multiyear deal north of $100 million.

Should the Mets prove successful, they would be carrying four nine-figure contracts: for shortstop Francisco Lindor ($341 million over 10 years), Scherzer, Díaz and deGrom. The team is owned, after all, by Steven A. Cohen, a hedge fund manager with a reported net worth of $15 billion who has shown a willingness to spend to overhaul the franchise, who approved a MLB-leading $288 million payroll in 2022 and who didn’t mind that a new payroll luxury tax was nicknamed after him.

“When Steve Cohen reached out and signed Scherzer, he really raised the flag that we are here to be a championship-level organization,” Scott Boras, the agent for Scherzer and many other stars, said Wednesday. He added later, “It brought a really credible illustration of what the new Mets organization is about, and that had not been there for a long time.”

Asked Wednesday if it was difficult to have such large contracts on one team while other roster needs remained, Eppler said: “It would be a heavy allocation to say the least. But you’d look to solve other areas of your roster internally if that could be done or in the trade market, where you don’t have to pay the free agent rate, so to speak. That’s a needle that can be threaded, but you’d have to be mindful of it.”

The Mets, of course, have other rotation holes to plug beyond deGrom. Chris Bassitt, a reliable starter who had a 3.42 ERA in 2022, is a free agent. So is Taijuan Walker (3.49 ERA). On Thursday, Eppler told reporters that the Mets are picking up the $14 million club option for Carlos Carrasco (3.97 ERA).

Eppler said the Mets told center fielder Brandon Nimmo, like deGrom a homegrown standout who is a free agent, that they would like to keep him.

Free agency didn’t officially begin until last Thursday, but teams were free to negotiate with their current players beforehand. Eppler said he didn’t know how soon deGrom wanted to sign, but said the Mets would also do their due diligence on other options in the meantime.

That’s part of the communication from our side to them — and to everybody — is that we’ve got business to do,” he said. “There are players we want to acquire and things we want to accomplish this wintertime, so we’re going to get down to it.”

He added later: “We want to stay in communication with each other and be very transparent with each other, so they’ll feel like we have a sense for what we’re doing and hopefully we have a sense of what they’re doing. And we’ll see what happens.”

Inside pitch

The San Francisco Giants and outfielder Aaron Judge, who spent seven seasons with the New York Yankees but is now a free agent for the first time in his career, have been linked for obvious reasons. Judge grew up less than two hours away from San Francisco in Northern California, attended Giants games as a child and watched Barry Bonds. And the Giants are a big-market team that missed the playoffs in 2022, were below average offensively and have relatively little committed to their 2023 payroll.

Asked about the team’s interest in Judge, who is the presumptive favorite for the American League Most Valuable Player Award and who smashed an AL-record 62 home runs this year, Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ president of baseball operations, declined to talk about specific free-agent players last Wednesday.

But broadly, Zaidi said: “From a financial standpoint, there’s nobody that would be out of our capability to meet what we expect the contract demands will be. And then it’ll just be a question of whether there’s mutual interest and how we put together the best possible team.”

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