Players have always been underpaid. In the last 30-plus years the system was set up so that the top players who were good enough to continue playing until they were eligible for free agency would end up getting paid closer to what they were worth. And frequently, those veterans got paid significantly more than they were worth. But in the last few years, teams have been much more careful about overpaying in free agency. Which means the players are getting squeezed on both ends. It’s because of that squeeze that we might see a labor dispute when the current CBA expires.
For right now, let’s look at a comparison of what Mets players were paid in 2020 versus what they were “worth.” The payroll information comes from Cot’s and Spotrac. In some cases these are just guesses. For guys who didn’t spend the whole year with the team, it’s very hard to determine how much the club actually paid them. For simplicity, the minimum used was $200,000 but it’s likely it was less than that. But we’re talking about rounding errors here, so it’s not anything over which to fret too much. The “worth” comes from FanGraphs Value, which assigns numbers based on a scale of $8 million per each unit of its WAR valuation. This isn’t perfect but it’s a systematic approach.
Let’s start with the hitters, focusing just on those who returned a positive fWAR.
The salary for Heredia is off. Spotrac had a number that looked right for Frazier, one that looked like the Mets’ portion of his salary. But they did not have one for Heredia. This is his full-season number and the Mets did not pay for the whole amount.
But my focus is on the guys who played a full season. You look at the pre-arb or early arbitration guys and you see how much more value they produced than what they were paid. Smith as a pre-arb guy was just incredibly valuable. Conforto and Nimmo were in their first year of arbitration and while they weren’t as big of a value as Smith, they both provided excellent bang for the buck. There were plenty of guys who fit into this category.
Now let’s look at the veterans. The biggest positive was that Cano actually out-earned his salary, which few saw coming heading into the season. The same could not be said for Ramos and Marisnick. And of course, this is just looking at the guys with a positive fWAR. Yoenis Cespedes put up a (-0.2) fWAR in his time with the Mets, which produced a (-$1.7 million) of value. Meanwhile, Spotrac has the Mets paying Cespedes $331,675 for his services in 2020.
Now let’s look at the pitchers with a positive fWAR, ignoring the two position players who got in a game on the mound:
No doubt the first thing that jumps out to you is the value for Porcello. Keep in mind that FG uses FIP as its input for pitchers in its WAR calculation and while Porcello had an ugly 5.64 ERA last year, he had a 3.33 FIP, which ranked 16th among the 39 pitchers in the NL last year with at least 50 IP. It’s tough to post a good ERA when opponents have a .373 BABIP against you and you have a 59.5% strand rate, which is nearly 10 points below your career average.
This gives us another way to point out how great deGrom is, although he’ll be getting a significant salary bump next year, getting over a 400% increase. It will be much harder for him to out-earn his salary going forward but no one should bet against that happening. In 2018, his value was calculated at $72.2 million and in 2019 it was listed as $56 million, both comfortably above next year’s $36 million salary.
We don’t have great bargains like Smith, although we should be very happy with Peterson here. Wacha was the lone guy listed above who didn’t earn his salary. He had a 5.29 FIP and was just able to stick his nose above being a replacement player. Of course, we have bigger busts that don’t show up because they produced a negative fWAR. The biggest of these was Steven Matz, who had a (-0.7) fWAR and a (-$5.2 million) value compared to a $1.9 million salary.
As noted earlier, the Mets benefited from pre-arb and early arbitration guys who really outperformed their salary. It will be tougher to have as big of a disparity between salary and value in 2021, as Conforto and Nimmo move into their second year of arbitration and deGrom’s salary quadruples. Hopefully, Gimenez and Peterson can match their early success and their production can help balance the equation out some.
But with the upper level of the minors being decimated by trades and promotions, it’s difficult to project who else might contribute in the pre-arb category. To make up for this, the Mets will have to choose wisely with their trade and free agent targets. It doesn’t do any good to increase payroll if it doesn’t increase production, or value.