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:
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)
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.