Creating payroll flexibility with the Mets’ 2020 budget

In 2019, the Mets’ Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) payroll was just north of $195 million. This figure includes the salaries of David Wright, Yoenis Cespedes, Jed Lowrie, and even Drew Smith. All of these fine gentlemen didn’t have any input on the team’s fortunes in 2019 but had signed contracts. The Mets actually paid $164 million in total payroll and are rumored to have collected 75% of the $56 million for the above fellas’ salaries in insurance payments, but the Average Annual Value (AAV) is what’s considered when the $206 million CBT threshold is applied.

To understand why there’s such a large difference, the Jacob deGrom salaries of $36 million for both ‘21 and ‘22 help make his AAV salary every year at $21.7 million, while his mere $9.5 million this year still keeps the current payroll at Wilponian levels. Truth is, for deGrom to get that salary in a Mets uniform, a lot of young/cheap talent must be kept, and we will address this later on. While next year the CBT threshold will go up to $208 million, there isn’t much room to add a high profile type CF, and these are the Mets – they don’t even add salary to get a better return in trades, they sure aren’t paying any tax. Don’t even think about it.

Of the Mets’ $195 million AAV salary in 2019, $57 million is coming off the books to a cozy $138 million. However, arbitration salaries of about $50 million (in my estimation after getting a feel for how much salaries go up according to the correlating year of arbitration) leaves only about $20 million of AAV to be added before the threshold. In actuality, contractual commitments in 2020 are only $128 million before the approximate $50 million in arbitrated salaries.

So, who has some value that the Mets can trade to create some wiggle room for this year in order to add a few pieces? We are looking for players that are redundant or have no clear opening for playing time, and are at “plus value” contractually or cheap enough to be enticing for other teams. These names include:

Dominic Smith
Lowrie or J.D. Davis
Michael Conforto or Brandon Nimmo
Noah Syndergaard
Steven Matz
Edwin Diaz
Seth Lugo
Robert Gsellman
Justin Wilson

Obviously, this is the entire list. Had Andres Gimenez been closer to the majors, Amed Rosario could theoretically been on this list, too. Now, the guys you can’t get much for must be erased from this list: Wilson and Gsellman. It seems Lowrie has value to a contender, so let’s keep him on. Plus, packaging Lowrie on a one-year deal with a young and cheap Smith, should bring back something good.

Brodie Van Wagenen has said both Diaz and Syndergaard will be on the Mets next year. That’s understandable because (1) the PR hit for selling low on Diaz would leave Van Wagenen with egg on his face and (2) with the Mets insisting on trying to trade Syndergaard and him having a down year, teams will offer them scraps.

Still, this leaves quite a few attractive names and some different trade options. Jeff McNeil, Lowrie and Davis can cover the corner outfields and third base, making either Nimmo or Conforto available for the best return. Later on, you can also trade either Lowrie or Davis if Cespedes is healthy, but not both. Too, we are more concerned with payroll flexibility in this exercise rather than acquiring talent, so we keep Davis and Nimmo. This leaves us with a list of:

Smith (the perfect excess piece to package with another player if need be)
Lowrie or Conforto (Both $10 million players)
Matz
Lugo

Conforto would have lots of value. He’s going into his prime, he has shaved his K% every year, and his consistently low lifetime BABIP of .294 (only once in five years has he passed .300) must at some point reverse itself because he isn’t so slow that he cannot earn some extra hits and he uses the whole field. Further, when shifted he hit over .300 in 2019 (using LF more), but only .225 in 102 PA’s when not shifted. In 2018, these numbers were the exact opposite. Too, his production at five or six in the order was much better than anywhere in the top four spots, whereas in 2018 he only thrived in the second and fifth spots, and quite a bit at that. He’s the type of hitter analytically savvy teams like the Rays, Dodgers, Yankees, Astros and certainly others would go after. His salary next year should be about $10 million, so you could get a lot back. Problem: his defense has been graded poorly for four straight years due to his playing center field and not having great defensive instincts in right. I look at Conforto and see Daniel Murphy, but does Van Wagenen see the same thing?

Smith is a nice story. He has nowhere to play on the Mets, but shows promise and is one of the best team guys out there. He has stand alone value, but probably for not more than a top-100 prospect rather than a top-50. But if packaging him will bring back a top-50 piece, then that must be weighed.

Matz is so inconsistent, that no matter the opponent he can be great or terrible. The “great” part gives him some value and the Mets should move him while he still has some time on his side. His Hits/9 have been trending the wrong way these last two years and he’s 28 already; hard to expect improvement at this point. Matz is expected to earn around $5 million in his second year of arbitration.

Again, Lowrie could bring interest from playoff contending teams, but the return talent-wise would be minimal to none.

Lugo would have great value if his famous partially torn ligament could be fixed. Twenty-nine other teams would put Lugo in the rotation with an arsenal better than Charlie Morton or Gerrit Cole but the Mets have the rotation depth to keep him in the bullpen. Hopefully, a new manager brings common sense and the GM brings in some good relievers to allow Lugo, and maybe Gsellman, a chance to start games. This is how the Yankees saved money: They couldn’t afford the $25 million starting pitcher under their CBT threshold, so they put youngsters in the rotation and signed three good relievers to have a deep bullpen to cover games when starters left early.

So, if the Mets trade Smith, Matz, and Conforto or Lowrie, they will save about $15 million and Conforto’s return should be at least two very good prospects. If they get Cespedes back, they can move both Conforto and Lowrie to save around $25 milliom. Adding either of these payroll savings to the $20 million cushion left before the CBT kicks in leaves $35-$45 million to spend, depending on Cespedes’ health. Too, the Mets seem to have a good grasp on Cespedes because they told us last winter not to expect him back, even though he kept saying he would be back. As a player who tried to play hurt, he will probably push himself and the Mets can only benefit.

Since the Mets are in “Win Now” mode, they should keep Conforto and send off Lowrie. If Cespedes really is healthy, his presence leaves an extra starting caliber player that can give the guys that will need a few extra days off, like Cano, that extra rest while keeping the other guys in the lineup fresh also without any drop-off in production. Therefore, by trading Matz, Lowrie, and Smith saves about $15 million, and adding in the $20 million cushion available in the AAV will total $35 million in payroll space before CBT. But, to account for adding salary in July and bringing up minor leaguers that aren’t on your contractual obligations for next year, let’s deduct $7 million from the $35 million, meaning the Mets can add up to $28 million and still have room to improve in July.

Takeaways
1. The Mets total actual payroll was $164m this year but the AAV of their contracts, which is what the CBT goes by, was $195m – due in part to the backloading of deGrom’s deal. Further, they recouped about 75% of the $56m owed to Cespedes, Wright, and Lowrie.
2. After arbitration to the players without contracts for next year, the Mets should have about $20m or so to play with – at most – not accounting for adding salary during the 2020 season.
3.The Mets can create a little more wiggle room financially by streamlining the roster to get some solid but unspectacular relievers, and then move Lugo and Gsellman into the rotation.

19 comments for “Creating payroll flexibility with the Mets’ 2020 budget

  1. Chris F
    October 22, 2019 at 11:14 am

    Nice Gus! I do think we need to look at the opening day payroll numbers as part of this exercise. But the point not matter how you slide it is that there is not a lot of payroll space. The Arb projections for next year are even more daunting!

  2. October 22, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    Great to see your byline, Gus!

    I agree with Chris – OD payroll would be nice, as that’s the dollars going out. None of us know where the Wilpons are comfortable setting that payroll. Last year’s was the highest it’s ever been and I don’t believe we can assume it will go up $30 million from there, just because they would be under the CBT threshold.

    Also, whenever someone else is so willing to deal a guy, it always makes me wonder – who’s going to take that guy in return? If someone offered the Mets a player who was 36 years old, had missed virtually the entire year and was owed $10 million — what would be your response? Most likely a big, no thank you.

    • TexasGusCC
      October 22, 2019 at 4:16 pm

      To answer both your points, payroll can only increase around $20 million without paying any tax. Any more availability would need to be created by trades. Also, yes I would take a one year deal on a good player that may still be productive. How much would Lowrie get this year if he was a free agent? He did have a 4+ bWAR the previous two years before the injury…

      To use a couple of examples, Ben Zobrist was a terrible 0.3 bWAR in his age 36 season, with a 79 OPS+, but he rebounded the next year to a 2.5 bWAR player with a 117 OPS+, so the abilities still existed (and wasn’t he going through a nasty divorce?). Win now teams that might like a decent short term solution at 2b: Cubs, Red Sox, Reds?, Angels, Rockies, and Tampa. According to Baseball Reference, the closest comp to Lowrie is Mark Ellis, and for his age 36 season Ellis had a 1.6 bWAR.

      • Chris F
        October 22, 2019 at 6:13 pm

        HI Gus, Completely agree that the lux tax limit is hard (but its stupid, you only pay the tax on the money over the tax limit). The main thing with OD payroll is that the team needs salary space for mid season moves etc., so it places some constraints on likely moves over the winter. In any case, the only way really significant new faces will arrive is by trade as you say.

        The Mets can really only trade from excess or limited from the prospect pool. The excess people wont command nearly as much because other GMs know you have a bounty and wont give til it hurts. On the prospects side, one must ask what could we live without. Perhaps Gimenez? Not sure who you trade with to get the players we might want, CF? C? starter?

        I cant see Lowrie netting anything in return but a low level person, and eating most of the salary. You might need to package him with Conforto or Smith or Davis to get any team to eat some salary.

        Will be interesting to see if BVW shocks us all with big moves (trade Rosario, Syndergaard, Alonso etc), or medium moves (Conforto, Davis etc), or just coasts with small things like Smith.

        • TexasGusCC
          October 22, 2019 at 8:11 pm

          Off our topic here, but if he signs Girardi as his only “big” move, I’m happy. This team is close; I don’t think we need to see big moves, just the right smaller moves. Keep Nimmo in center; sign three veteran solid bullpen arms; put Lugo and Gsellman in the rotation to save money (if there’s no other choice or Wheeler does walk), figure out why Ramos was negative defensively – when he has never ever before been negative in his ratings – and find a usable defensive option in center field (Lagares?).

  3. John Fox
    October 22, 2019 at 1:32 pm

    I can’t imagine any team would be willing to trade a remotely useful player for the brittle aging Lowrie even if the Mets ate some salary

  4. MattyMets
    October 22, 2019 at 3:01 pm

    Welcome to the other side, Gus! I think Smith has a lot of intangible value to this team and I wouldn’t trade him for the sake of trading him. There’s been a lot of talk of trading Davis, but it would have to be a really nice return for me to pull that trigger. The two guys I would look at trading are Conforto and Ramos. I’ve brought up many times on here that I think the Mets need to upgrade at catcher. Ramos’ bat does not make up for his defense or the pitching staff’s lack of comfort with him. Conforto is at peak value with 2 years of control left, still young, and coming off a good/healthy year. If this is who he is – good but not great and streaky – I’d sell high rather than stick out 2 years only to lose him because Boras finds a $30mm AAV for him. We could rebuild the farm with this trade.

    • TexasGusCC
      October 22, 2019 at 4:34 pm

      Matt, Smith plays an easy to fill position, but plays it well. Plus, he has some hitting potential. Someone will need him. My thinking was to package Lowrie and Smith together to get rid of Lowrie and a piece like Smith that isn’t going to help much. When I saw him pull up to avoid Rosario in San Fran, I filed that away. I understand that they have collided before, but you do not give up on a play. Period.

      I don’t want players that sound like Derrick Rose and ‘aren’t going to hurt themselves’ to make a play. That’s not sports. He’s a bad left fielder, plays a position that is easy to fill, and the Mets have several others. The team trading for him would get a cheap but serviceable player for a few years and a more expensive but still serviceable second baseman (he did have back-to-back 4+ bWAR years before injury and the injury wasn’t a debilitating one) at the cost of $10.6 million for both. That’s not bad, and is worth at least a decent prospect, but not top shelf, like top-100 type. Say an equivalent to Mark Vientos. That’s not too much to pay if you want to take a shot at winning this year.

  5. steevy
    October 22, 2019 at 4:49 pm

    I have the sinking feeling the BVW regime is going to go down in infamy.

  6. Rob
    October 22, 2019 at 4:50 pm

    Does anyone have a centerfielder in mind that would be available? Seems like center fields who can hit are becoming scarce.

    • Mike W
      October 22, 2019 at 7:45 pm

      I like Kiermaier, but he hits too much like Lagares.

      • JImO
        October 22, 2019 at 8:26 pm

        Michael Taylor for Dom Smith?

  7. eric raffle
    October 22, 2019 at 6:28 pm

    This is a bit of an old tale…the Mets have been graduating up the pay scale, and it will be difficult to call them “cheap” at this point forward. They are dealing with reality– I believe they need to QO Wheeler, and they need more pieces…and they need to create Salary space.

    I believe the story going forward will be more about players and choices versus dollars. They have a good array of assets under control—and I believe they have a very identifiable list of needs.

    I’m interested in those Next Choices

  8. footballhead
    October 22, 2019 at 9:45 pm

    Good article & good points by the various responders. If we’re talking freeing up payroll, is there any scenario possible to get rid of Cano? I’d be willing to trade him with Dom Smith + 50-75% of Cano’s salary for young bullpen arms. Heck, just having Cano on the team has/will be a disaster for the rest of his contract life. Just get rid of him. Of course it wont happen…BVW would never acknowledge what a bonehead move it was to have his (former) client brought in.
    With Cano gone, McNeil is back at 2B so less of a glut in the OF so no need of getting rid of Conforto.

  9. TJ
    October 22, 2019 at 11:54 pm

    Nice work Gus!

    So, many good points above. Plenty of math done above, some of it speculative, but what we can say for sure is that the Mets have had a mid-tier salary since 2013, ranging from 13th to 21st. This is without accounting for the insurance payments or sell-offs. So, the bottom line is, as has been the case for at least 5 years, they can afford to spend more if needed.

    Now, spending certainly doesn’t guarantee upgrades or improvements, especially with the primary Met need – the bullpen (see Kimbrel, Familia, Robertson, Kelly, the entire Rockie pen, etc., etc.).

    The two key monetary pieces are Wheeler and Cespedes, and frankly the Mets are in a tough and uncontrollable spot with each. They need to QO Wheeler, so the ball is in his court. And, while he hasn’t become elite, a replacement will very likely be not as good. But, far and away, Cespedes is the biggest issue. If he can’t play, his cost will be drastically diminished. If he returns and at 34 is capable and motivated, he adds a big bat and frees up more assets to be used for trading. If he returns but stinks, well, that is the nightmare scenario. In many ways this is similar to the David Wright saga. I wonder if BVW has any inside info on where Cespedes really stands at this point.

  10. October 23, 2019 at 1:54 am

    Hi Gus! Wonderful points you make. Here’s some food for thought. If J.D. Martinez does not opt out of his contract, Boston will have a 2020 payroll at 227 million dollars after arb hearings and filling out the roster with league minimum players. Henry has made it clear he wants to get under the hard cap in 2020. It just so happens that Mookie Betts arb figure is 27 million+. The Soxs could use Dominic Smith (and his cheap salary) at 1st base. Add Thor to the mix and i think the deal gets done. I would do as you advise and put Lugo in the rotation. I would also package J.D. Davis and Lawrie for a SP.

  11. eric raffle
    October 23, 2019 at 6:57 am

    Thor for Betts is a trade I proposed a few days ago—– in truth, I’d prefer the Mets “solve” without sacrificing their strength. That will mean merchandising some of the young and controllable position Guys…and writing a few big checks.

    Smith is tradeable…… Conforto/Nimmo are also tradeable in the right deal. The Mets have not had this many “assets” in a long, long time.

    They need to build with an assumption that Cano will not be at the core of any of their calculations. Ces?—they need to pretend He doesn’t exist. He’s certainly not a “Solve-able” until someone/anyone sees him run and play.

  12. TexasGusCC
    October 31, 2019 at 2:48 am

    Just an update on our discussion here, MLBTR has put out the projected arbitration figures for the Mets. They come in at about $48 million (if you don’t include Panik), so that leaves an extra couple of Mil in the pocket to add to the paltry funds available.

    Marcus Stroman – $11.8MM
    Joe Panik – $5.1MM
    Noah Syndergaard – $9.9MM
    Steven Matz – $5.3MM
    Michael Conforto – $9.2MM
    Edwin Diaz – $7.0MM
    Seth Lugo – $1.9MM
    Brandon Nimmo – $1.7MM
    Robert Gsellman – $1.2MM

    I’m surprised Diaz got so much, but definitely Lugo got ripped off.

    • Chris F
      October 31, 2019 at 8:25 am

      Dont forget you need to pay:
      1. Guaranteed contracts
      2. Arb salaries of people remaining
      3. opt outs if any exis
      4. and at a bare minimum all the MLB base salaries to fill a 25 man roster.

      So. You have Cano, deGrom, Lowrie, Familia, Ces, Ramos, Wilson. Thats 7; Then there is the 9 arb players, thats 16 total.

      So you also have 9 MLB minimum contracts to pay at say 700k$, thats another 6M$ you have to account for, unless you trade some of that salary for an FA/arb guy.

      Minus options, the team has a standing payroll at OD for next year right around 180M$.

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