There’s still a slim chance Zack Wheeler will be in a Mets uniform on opening day. Just as there’s a slim chance Anthony Rendon will be manning third base or Mookie Betts will be patrolling center field. Odds are, we’ve seen our last of Wheeler in blue and orange and it stings. Why? Because a) it could have been avoided and b) we’ve seen this movie before and we walked out of the theater.
Following the 2011 season, it was clear the Mets planned poorly. Their two homegrown cornerstone players were about to hit free agency and, as much as the Flushing faithful wanted to keep both David Wright and Jose Reyes, this was the Mets we’re talking about, not the Yankees. Ownership authorized the budget to keep one of the two and, together with then General Manager Sandy Alderson, they chose Wright and effectively waved goodbye to a 28-year-old fan favorite who’d blossomed with the organization and ignited crowds since signing on as a 16-year-old international prospect out of the Dominican Republic. No one could have predicted the injuries that would derail Wright’s contract, nor that Reyes would go on to have three more very good seasons, but what could have been predicted was that this was bad business. Reyes was more than a spark plug that helped the team win; he was a drawing card that helped fill the stadium. Attendance at Citi Field wouldn’t recover until four years later when the Mets made a run in 2015.
The Mets wisely locked up the two emerging stars, buying out their arbitration years and locking them in with escalating contracts. However, they stupidly extended them to expire at the same time. Had the contract lengths been staggered, perhaps we would have had better wiggle room to retain both players.
The Mets front office clearly did not learn from their mistake because they set themselves up to make it again in the offseason following their World Series appearance. Homegrown hero Daniel Murphy electrified the fanbase with clutch home runs off the league’s best pitchers in the playoffs. Fans already loved the hard-nosed second baseman for his clutch doubles and grind-it-out at bats, but now that he’d discovered a power stroke when it mattered most, his status as a Mets legend was cemented. Only this fan favorite that the organization worked so hard to develop would have to leave, simply because he hit free agency just as their new, more expensive star, Yoenis Cespedes did. Once again, ownership dictated that the Mets and their fans could have peanut butter or jelly, but certainly not both. And once again, the Mets chose wrong. Following one more good year, Cespedes would largely go on to collect elephant checks from the injured list, while Murphy would go on to have two MVP caliber seasons for the rival Nationals for far less money.
The mistake here was letting Murphy get to free agency in the first place. No, he wasn’t an MVP candidate in previous seasons, but this isn’t a Justin Turner situation either. Prior to his post-season coming out party, Murphy was a doubles machine with a sweet lefty stroke who could play three positions. Smart teams recognize potential and try to lock up players early. The Mets did this with center fielder Juan Lagares, and clearly made the wrong bet there, but that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a smart play. Murphy should have been locked in and so should have Wheeler. Smaller budget teams who know they can’t afford the big free agent deals, like the Rays and Indians, do this all the time. How else has Cleveland managed to hold on to a two-time Cy Young Award winner? Before he could advance through arbitration and even get near free agency, the Indians locked Corey Kluber in with a modest five-year contract. Though it features escalating salaries and incentives, it maxes out at just $18 million. Had Kluber hit free agency on schedule, with two shiny trophies on his mantle, he’d have gotten one of those monster multi-year starting pitcher contracts north of $30 million per season.
The Rays have made an art form of this over the years. And the genius of it is that it gives the organization flexibility. A player months from free agency only has so much value. When the Cubs sent the Yankees future star Gleyber Torres for an Aroldis Chapman rental it may have been the last time we ever see something like that happen. These were unusual circumstances with the general manager of a championship-starved team on the cusp sitting across the table from a shrewd GM who held all the cards. A valuable player locked up to a modest contract however, has tremendous value and the Rays know this better than any other organization. Over the years, they’ve traded away many pitchers in their primes to contenders to recoup bushels of prospects. Gold glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (the player Lagares should have become) is the latest example. He’s locked in on a modest contract and could make a great trade chip should the Rays drop from contention this summer and look to save money or enrich the farm.
And this practice is not just put into play by small market teams. Look at the Braves, who aggressively committed to Ronald Acuna Jr. (signed through 2027) and Ozzie Albies (signed through 2026). There were clearly too many questions about Wheeler’s health and durability earlier in his career, but following his phenomenal 2018 second half, the Mets should have made a stronger attempt to lock him up. Instead, they had to focus on Cy Young award winner Jacob deGrom, who they wisely committed to keeping long-term. Why this franchise can’t negotiate more than one contract at a time is a mystery. If nothing else, however, at least we’ve learned from the Tom Seaver mistake by ensuring deGrom will stay in Queens. But with Wheeler, and possibly Noah Syndergaard next, we could be repeating the Nolan Ryan mistake.
Reportedly, the Mets made attempts to negotiate with Wheeler last summer. When this may have happened is anyone’s guess as both he and Syndergaard were rumored to be on the trading block before Brodie Van Wagenen shocked the world and added Marcus Stroman to the rotation to replace Jason Vargas. Syndergaard, though coming off a down year—attributable to either a slick ball or bad catcher chemistry—still has a world of potential. Paired with a Crash Davis catcher and a smart pitching coach, it’s not hard to envision him putting it all together and having a Gerrit Cole season for another team. Unfortunately, he’s due to hit free agency after the 2021 season, the same time as Michael Conforto. This year, the pair are expected to each earn between $9 and $10 million through their penultimate run through arbitration, before getting more expensive in their final time through next year. Word on the street is that being a Scott Boras client makes Conforto a sure bet to test the free agent waters. If that’s truly the case, coupled with the Mets’ history of giving us peanut butter or jelly, but never both, the dumbest thing the Mets can do is stay pat and watch the clock tick.
The smart play is to try to lock up Syndergaard now while his value is down a bit and before he sniffs free agency. At the same time, it may sadly be necessary to trade Conforto. Given his representation, he’s going to enter free agency looking for a huge contract. He’s a great kid and the back of his baseball card is starting to look pretty good with all the 25+ home run seasons, but he has not yet blossomed into the Carlos Beltran type All-Star outfielder we thought we had and won’t be worth either the massive contract or losing him for nothing in return in two years.
Just as we’ve seen this movie before, so has the Mets’ front office. It’s time to rewrite the ending. Meanwhile, here we are again, about to wave bye-bye to another (mostly) homegrown player.