Fans see roughly $50 million before the Mets hit the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) threshold and wonder why they aren’t spending at least up to that level now and possibly going over, since money isn’t really an issue for new owner Steve Cohen. It’s been reported that Cohen is expecting to lose about $400 million in his first two years as the owner. And it’s likely that forecast was made without going over the CBT in his first year.
The easiest thing to do is to throw money at a problem, especially when it’s not your money. But the Mets have made it clear that they want to build a sustainable winner and you can’t do that if you throw away draft picks. Trevor Bauer, DJ LeMahieu and George Springer each come with draft pick compensation attached to them. It doesn’t mean the Mets can’t sign one of them but it does make it problematic to sign two or three.
Draft picks are key because they provide a low-cost source of talent. While the three players mentioned above figure to easily make eight figures each year of their deal, the 2019 Mets had eight key contributors to the team making fewer than a million dollars, including Pete Alonso in his 53-HR season. Having those types of salaries allows a team to stock the rest of their roster with big-ticket items.
But what happens when you don’t have a bunch of those pre-arb players? Sure, you can still have a bunch of relievers and bench players on that pay scale, whether they’re pre-arb or not. But you need to have those salaries also coming from productive players, like Alonso in 2019.
At this point in time, the Mets don’t figure to have any rookies debut in 2021 who will be major contributors in future years, with the possible exception of Thomas Szapucki. Last year there was Andres Gimenez and David Peterson. That’s good, except for the fact that fans want to trade Gimenez to bring in a big name shortstop and they want to sign a bunch of free agent starters and move Peterson to the minors. And all of those guys who were on cheap deals in 2019 will either start to get expensive in 2022 or will already be there.
Right now, the Mets only have four players under contract for 2022 but those four total just under $60 million, including Robinson Cano and his $20.25 million salary which is not on the books for 2021 due to his suspension. They’ll also have 15 arbitration-eligible players, including 10 that will be in their second or third arbitration season. And two of the first-time arb players will get more than token raises due to being starting position players with an All-Star appearance already on their resume. Now, not all of those arb-eligible players will be tendered a deal. Let’s take a look at the potential arbitration guys:
Edwin Diaz, Brandon Nimmo, Seth Lugo, Dominic Smith, J.D. Davis, Amed Rosario, Miguel Castro, Robert Gsellman, Guillermo Heredia, Jacob Barnes, Tomas Nido, Jeff McNeil, Drew Smith, Alonso and Luis Guillorme
Still, they’ll have somewhere around eight arbitration salaries on their roster. Here’s what they paid to arb-eligible players since 2015:
15 – 6 players, $17.92 million
16 – 5 players, $21.09
17 – 7 players, $28.74
18 – 7 players, $36.32
19 – 4 players, $18.64
20 – 9 players, $48.42 (pre-adjustment)
Let’s look at 2018, since 2020 was a weird year and they only had four ab-eligible guys in 2019. In 2018, they had an Opening Day payroll of $150.6 million. In addition to their seven arb guys, they had three salaries on the book for at least eight digits, seven salaries between $2 and $9 million and 12 guys who made $606,000 or fewer. That exceeds 25 guys but includes injured players.
So, if our 2022 roster has four guys making $60 million and eight arbitration guys making, say, $30 million – that leaves a minimum of 14 players – assuming a 26-man roster – to fill out the Opening Day payroll. But unlike in 2018, there aren’t going to be 12 players making roughly minimum wage. And we still have to add in whatever other free agents sign long-term deals this year, along with any of the four current players eligible for free agency they may re-sign. Plus, the fans no doubt will want them to be players in the free agent market that offseason, too.
Let’s make some assumptions.
Let’s say the NL has the DH going forward, the Mets make no major trades and they sign one free agent to a big multi-year deal and one to a one-year deal. Let’s say they get Springer for an AAV of $25 million and they ink a SP to close out this season’s big moves. Let’s further be optimistic and say that Gimenez establishes himself as a league-average SS and Peterson as a solid SP4. Where does that leave the roster?
For 2022, there’s $85 million in five known contracts, $30 million for eight arbitration cases and $1.5 million for pre-arb Gimenez and Peterson. That’s $116.5 million. And you need three starting pitchers, a right fielder and possibly even a third baseman, depending on how things shake out there this year and what the plan is with Cano moving forward. Let’s continue to be positive and say that Davis works out at third base and is one of our eight arb guys. How much money do you spend for an SP2, SP3, SP5 and a starting RF? Let’s ballpark that at $80 million. That puts you right up against the CBT line once you fill out your remaining slots. And that’s likely an optimistic scenario, counting on Davis, Gimenez and Peterson all being cheap starters.
Arbitration is a tricky thing so maybe that $30 million estimate is off. Under the Wilpons, the Mets bent over backwards to avoid going to arbitration with their players. It will be curious to see if the Sandy Alderson-Jared Porter front office continues that trend. Regardless, let’s take a moment and see how Mets players in the recent past who’ve been arb-eligible at least two times with the club fared as they went through the system:
|Michael Conforto||$4.03||$8.00||$11.75 (p)|
|Edwin Diaz||$5.10||$6.5 (p)|
|Brandon Nimmo||$2.18||$4.85 (p)|
|Seth Lugo||$2.00||$2.75 (p)|
|Robert Gsellman||$1.13||$1.5 (p)|
The (p) is the projected figure from Cot’s for the 2021 season.
We see that Conforto made $4 million his first year of arbitration. Let’s assume that the following players all have solid seasons in 2021. Given that, it seems possible – perhaps even likely – that Alonso and McNeil will surpass that mark. Nimmo seems likely to get in his third arbitration year what Conforto got in his second. Diaz seems likely to be near what Familia got in his third year of arbitration, perhaps slightly less. Those four alone should top $20 million and $25 wouldn’t be a shock. It seems to me that $30 million is a good ballpark guess for the eight arbitration cases and might even be on the low side, especially if Smith and/or Davis has a big 2021.
It’s hard to project the 2021 roster right now, much less the 2022 one. But that’s what the front office has to do – keep in mind the big picture and see when the right time is to incur the CBT penalty. And the big picture is where they are at both on the success cycle and where they are at with homegrown players ready to step in.
We all want to think the Mets are ready for prime time yet they played the 2020 season at a 70-win pace. Now, there are a lot of reasons to think the Mets are better than that. Still, you are what your record says you are. Is it the prudent thing to go all-in and hope the team can make a 25-game improvement in the standings?
That’s a tough sell here in early January. Now, it could be an entirely different story come the trade deadline. Maybe the pitching is doing great, most of the offense is having good years but shortstop is a black hole. Perhaps then will be the time to pay the price and exceed the CBT. Or perhaps that’s even further down the road.
You can argue that the CBT should be irrelevant with current ownership and there’s nothing wrong with that point of view. But in a way, it’s like stumping for a 4-man rotation or advocating for pitchers to throw 125 pitches without losing our mind, Those are good ideas in theory but it’s not the current MLB reality for the overwhelming number of clubs. The Dodgers, Giants and Tigers stopped paying the tax after 2017 and the Nationals followed a year later. The Red Sox and the Cubs will be under the threshold in 2021, possibly even the Yankees.
It’s why we seem like we’re heading towards a labor/management issue. Teams aren’t spending like they once did and there are incentives currently for them to act this way. We can wish this wasn’t the case. But it’s the reality of the situation and one of the reasons why the Mets are acting the way they are in the current free agent market.