Back in December of 2018, my opinion was that the Mets would be better served signing Zack Wheeler to an extension rather than Jacob deGrom. The rationale was not that Wheeler was a better pitcher than deGrom but rather because the Mets could still get Wheeler at a discount. Also, at the time Wheeler was under control for just one more year while deGrom had two more years.
Now the Mets face something of a similar question with two outfielders. And just like it was a minority opinion to advocate for Wheeler, my position is that the Mets should prioritize the minority choice by extending Brandon Nimmo over Michael Conforto. Much like with Wheeler, the Mets have a chance to extend Nimmo and receive some type of discount. No one thinks that Conforto, on the brink of free agency and with Scott Boras as his agent, will be amenable to any type of discount.
But on top of getting a discount with Nimmo, if they pick him, they’d actually be picking the more productive player.
For a lot of fans, it’s heresy to suggest that Nimmo is better than Conforto. But the most advanced offensive statistic that we have – wOBA – has Nimmo with a .365 to .358 edge. And that comes even with Conforto’s terrific 2020, which came about thanks to an unsustainable .412 BABIP. Nimmo, on the other hand, posted a BABIP below his career average in 2020.
And while people want to crucify Nimmo for his defense, there’s little reason to think that Conforto is any better in the field. Both players have spent time at all three outfield positions. The Mets, having seen both Conforto and Nimmo play center, believe that Nimmo is the better choice to play the toughest defensive spot.
Conforto has played 4,841.1 innings in the OF and has a (-3) DRS in that span. However, that’s somewhat misleading. In his debut back in 2015, Conforto put up a +9 DRS in 389.2 innings, a relatively tiny sample. Since then, in 4,451.2 innings, he has a (-12) DRS, with a (-16) in 1,137.1 innings in center field. A full season is considered to be 1,200 innings. When playing an outfield corner, Conforto has a +4 DRS in 3,314.1 innings since 2016, the year that Nimmo made his MLB debut.
Nimmo has played 1,453.2 innings in an outfield corner since 2016 and has a +4 DRS.
So, when we look at hitting, Nimmo has a slight advantage. When we look at defense, Nimmo has been better on a per innings basis in an outfield corner. And they’re fairly even as baserunners, with Conforto holding a 5.3 to 5.2 edge in FanGraphs’ BSR statistic since 2016. Overall, it seems to me that Nimmo is the better player but if you want to say it’s a coin flip between the two of them, because of Conforto’s edge in playing time, it’s hard to argue too much against that.
But Conforto has visions of a George Springer, 6/$150 contract. What do you think it would cost to extend Nimmo today?
It seems on a salary scale that Nimmo is roughly a year behind Conforto. Here’s how Conforto’s salaries played out during his arbitration years:
Arb 1 – $4.025 million
Arb 2 – $8 million
Arb 3 – $12.25 million
Meanwhile, Nimmo received $2.175 million in his first year of arbitration and $4.7 million in his second season.
If the Mets engaged in extension talks with Nimmo right now, they would re-work his salary this year in a new deal. So, they would buy out his final two years of arbitration, along with two or three years of free agency. It seems to me that a 5/$75 deal would be in the ballpark of what it would take to extend Nimmo now.
Even if you think Conforto is better – do you believe he’s worth an AAV of roughly $25 million compared to an AAV of $15 for Nimmo? To be fair, that AAV for Nimmo would include two arbitration years, while Conforto’s would have none. But that’s part of the beauty of extending Nimmo now. If Nimmo goes out and puts up two 162-game seasons at the pace of his 2020 numbers – or even better for him, his 2018 numbers – what happens to his AAV then?
And, as we all know, the CBT is calculated based on AAV of the player throughout his contract. The Mets have the cushion to have a higher AAV for Nimmo in 2021 with an extension now. And with Robinson Cano being added back to the payroll in 2022 and beyond, it would be nice to have Nimmo at a $15 million AAV rather than Conforto at $25 million.
There’s risk in extending a long-term deal to Nimmo, given the neck injury that he suffered in 2019. But there were no reports of that injury resurfacing in 2020. And let’s not pretend that Conforto has been the picture of health, either. Covid kept Conforto from opening the 2020 season on the IL with an oblique injury. And his season ended a few days early due to hamstring problems. And before that was the concussion and the shoulder injury.
Finally, while this doesn’t necessarily play into the decision to sign either player to a long-term deal, let’s note for the record that lifetime Conforto has a .719 OPS versus LHP while Nimmo has a .758 OPS versus lefties. The idea that Nimmo is a platoon player and Conforto isn’t just doesn’t hold water.
Every argument you can make for signing Conforto to a long-term deal you can make for Nimmo. Except with Nimmo you can sign him now for significantly fewer dollars. The Mets are going to have a bunch of free agent decisions in this calendar year and the ugly truth is that unless they’re willing to blow past the CBT, they won’t be able to sign them all. Now, how the upcoming labor issues will deal with the CBT is an unknown. But even if it works out in the most-advantageous way for players, where it gets a giant bump or gets removed completely, that only makes it easier for the Mets to sign Conforto after the fact.
Conforto’s price isn’t going to change much between now and when he hits free agency. Barring injury, there’s no hometown discount in play. But Nimmo’s price isn’t going anywhere but up from where it’s at now. The Mets missed their opportunity to “buy low” on Wheeler prior to the 2019 season. Here’s hoping they won’t miss the boat on Nimmo, too.