Pete Alonso is a great home run hitter and most of us are thrilled he’s on the team. Yet there’s a difference of opinion on how good he is and how hard the Mets should try to re-sign him as he’s a year away from becoming a free agent. Few would argue that the Mets missed the boat by not looking to lock him up earlier. We could say that it was business as usual for the cheap Wilpons. But Steve Cohen took over three offseasons ago and no long-term deal has come since then, either.
Edwin Diaz and Kodai Senga inked 5-year contracts. Brandon Nimmo got an 8-year deal. Francisco Lindor received a 10-year extension. Shoot, even Starling Marte got four years. But the Mets have gone year-to-year with Alonso during both the Cohen years and the Wilpon ones. Fans have no problem saying the Wilpons were cheap. But the majority of those same fans are reluctant to criticize Cohen for, well, anything.
You don’t get any kind of hometown discount from a player a year away from hitting free agency. So, the question becomes: How many years should the Mets invest into an Alonso deal? And there’s a bunch of things that have to factor into such a deal. Fortunately, the team’s ability to pay is not one of them. Still, if you want to praise Cohen for being a successful businessman, you can’t fault him for factoring in business considerations before agreeing to a new deal.
At this point, we have to address a reality. Since Alonso didn’t get a long-term deal once Cohen took over, we have to assume that they made the business decision that it wasn’t in the club’s best interest to do so. Either that or Cohen’s an idiot. And since we established that Cohen walks on water, that can’t possibly be the right answer.
So, what are the reasons to make Cohen, or anyone else, leery of extending Alonso?
There are two or three things that jump immediately to mind. First, the plan since Day 1 of Cohen taking over, the idea was to run a high-dollar payroll while waiting for the farm system to start pumping out prospects. Then the hope was that the expensive players could be replaced by cheaper internal options. Diaz, Nimmo, Lindor and Senga aren’t going anywhere in the immediate future. The most expensive players left are Marte and Alonso. And Marte has what now is an immovable contract, one with an extra year of control compared to Alonso.
The Lindor extension while not addressing Alonso should have been a wakeup call to those wanting to see Alonso retire as a Met. The Nimmo deal should have been like waving smelling salts under everyone’s nostrils. With few high-end pitching prospects expected to emerge from the system, the Mets were going to need to spend for hurlers at the top of the rotation and then look to cut payroll with hitting prospects replacing expensive position players.
Next comes two things that are in fact separate issues but we’ll combine them for simplicity. One part is: How valuable is Alonso today? And the other part is: How valuable will he be in the future? It’s easy for fans to see Alonso’s gaudy HR and RBI numbers and to conclude that he’s elite. But as important as power is – and it’s extremely important – it’s not the only thing that counts in determining a player’s value.
Even with all of his power, Alonso has posted fWAR marks of 3.3, 3.8 and 2.8 in the past three seasons. That’s a very good, productive player. It’s just not elite. Alonso’s career-best mark came in 2019, when he hit 53 HR. That year, he posted a 4.4 fWAR. At this point, it’s fair to wonder if that will be the most-productive season in Alonso’s career.
Conventional wisdom used to be that a player’s offensive peak happened between the ages of 28-32. Now, people who study the question put that peak at 26-30, instead. That’s the general rule although there will always be outliers. But if you’re going to make a six or eight or 10-year commitment, you don’t want to be banking on outliers to make it a tolerable, much less good deal. That’s not what a smart businessman does.
So, let’s take a look at recent first basemen, with how they did on the other side of 30. Using the time frame of 1990-2023, while looking at 1B with at least 3,000 PA, here are the top HR hitters and how they aged:
Albert Pujols – At age 23, Pujols put up a 9.5 fWAR. From age 24-29, he put up marks between 7.7 and 8.4. At age 30, his production dropped to 6.8 and then at age 31, his last with the Cardinals, it fell to 3.9 for the year. Pujols played 11 more years in the majors after leaving St. Louis and his best year was a 3.3 fWAR, the only time he cracked a 3-WAR season. The best thing that happened for the Cardinals was the Angels giving Pujols a bigger contract. They got stuck with his decline seasons, after the Cardinals enjoyed all of his peak years.
Jim Thome – In his last two years with Cleveland, Thome put up a 5.4 fWAR and a 7.3 mark at age 31. He then left in free agency and signed with the Phillies. And while he didn’t have the same extreme collapse that Pujols did, the pattern was the same. Thome had good years, posting fWAR totals in the fours in three of his next four seasons. Thome played six additional years and put up a combined 10.1 fWAR in that period. He never cracked a 5.0 fWAR after he left via free agency, much less a 7.0 mark.
Rafael Palmeiro – He had good years up to age 37, which is later than either Pujols or Thome. But he also played in the height of the Steroids Era and has a failed drug test after wagging his finger at Congress and declaring that he was clean.
Frank Thomas – He had four seasons with an fWAR in the 7s during his 20s. He played 11 more years and had three seasons where he eclipsed a 3.0 mark, one in the 3s, one in the 4s and topping out at 5.9 at age 32.
Miguel Cabrera – He had his best season at age-30, when he posted an 8.6 fWAR. Cabrera played 10 more years and was still very productive at ages 31-34, when he put up a combined 14.9 fWAR. For most players, averaging 5-WAR per season would be fantastic. But it was a significant drop from where he was. And the less said about the other seven years, the better. But he finished with a negative fWAR in five of those years and the other two he failed to crack a 1.0 mark.
Carlos Delgado – He peaked with a 7.4 fWAR at age 28 and was still very productive with a 5.3 mark at age 31. Delgado played six more seasons after that and only once cracked a 3-WAR year. You probably remember 2006, when he hit 38 HR and drove in 114 RBIs for the Mets. It was an Alonso-type season. Delgado posted a 2.8 fWAR that year. A player who could post a 7-WAR season in his 20s was a sub-3 player in most of his 30s, despite the gaudy HR & RBI totals.
Mark McGwire – The Andro King put up great numbers thru his mid-30s. But he could only play 89 games at age 36 and was done at age 37.
Adam Dunn – You probably think of him as an outfielder, as he played 1,113 games in the OF, compared to 528 at 1B. But he’s very similar to Alonso, with a bunch of 40-HR seasons and not-very-impressive fWAR totals. He peaked with a 5.3 mark at age 24. He had a 3-WAR season at age 30, when he hit 38 HR with 103 RBIs. He played four more seasons after that, with a combined 0.0 fWAR and was out of baseball after his age-34 season.
Jeff Bagwell – Here we have the most-compelling case to extend a long-term deal to Alonso, as Bagwell was a productive player thru his age-36 season. But he was a better all-around player to start with and Bagwell had an 8.0 fWAR season to his credit at age 29. Here were his fWAR totals starting at age 32: 5.9, 5.2, 4.8, 3.7, 3.6 and 0.0 at age 37.
Jason Giambi – In his last year with the A’s, Giambi put up a 9.2 fWAR at age 30. He left for the Yankees and had three very good years but nothing compared to his previous heights. He topped out with a 6.6 fWAR in his first year in pinstripes. Giambi played 13 more seasons in the majors after leaving Oakland. He was a 3-WAR player at age 35 in 2006. For the final eight years of his career, Giambi had a combined 2.6 fWAR.
These were the top 10 HR hitters among 1B in our time period, a group that includes three players in the Hall of Fame and two more in Pujols and Cabrera who will likely join them when eligible. All 10 of these players were considerably more productive in their 20s than they were in their 30s. A couple were able to stave off declines due to using substances that are now banned. Several others were productive – although nowhere as good – in their early 30s.
All 10 put up seasons better than Alonso’s best to date. These are simply better all-around players. But if these better players couldn’t maintain their overall production in their 30s, why should we think that Alonso can?
It’s certainly possible that Alonso can be like Delgado and keep cranking out seasons with big HR and RBI numbers. It’s just that those seasons aren’t as good as they seem on the surface. And 2006 Delgado and 2023 Alonso turned in sub-3.0-fWAR seasons. You can say you’re paying for Alonso to hit 40 HR and if he does that, he’s worth the money. I cheered for Dave Kingman so I get the sentiment.
However, we know better in the 21st Century and paying for HR instead of overall production is a losing proposition.
My hope is that the Mets and Alonso can agree to a shorter-term contract than what others propose. Some want to see him get the six years of Freddie Freeman or eight years of Matt Olson. To me, that’s just asking for trouble. The Mets will already be paying for the decline years of Lindor and Nimmo. Do they need to add Alonso to that list?
And that doesn’t even take into account that Lindor and Nimmo are adding excess value in the front half of those deals. Lindor provided roughly $16 million of excess value over what he was paid this year. Nimmo provided roughly $17 million of excess value in 2023. When they’re in their decline, they still have a shot to be worth their contract. What are the chances that Alonso signs a deal in the Freeman/Olson territory and provides excess value from the $25-million plus he would get per year in that scenario?
It’s fun to watch Alonso bat, knowing a 450-foot homer could come on any swing. It’s also fun seeing a homegrown guy succeed. But this is a classic battle between the heart and the head. The heart loves everything about Alonso and wants him here the rest of his career. The head knows that Alonso isn’t as valuable as his HR & RBI numbers suggest and that he’s not going to be a more-productive player as he ages.
Because my heart loves the idea of Alonso in a Mets uniform, my hope is that they can work out a deal to carry him thru his age-34 season. But if Alonso is bound and determined to get a deal of six years or more, my head steps in and says that’s a deal breaker.
David Hong mentioned yesterday that Darryl Strawberry was his first favorite player. In his age-28 season, Strawberry put up a 6.5 fWAR. He left for the Dodgers after that year. It was heartbreaking to see him in another uniform. But the Mets easily got the best years of Strawberry’s career and let other teams pay for the memory of what he once was.
It’s easy to point out how the struggles that Strawberry had make comparing him to Alonso silly. And while that’s true in the larger scheme of things, the takeaway is that you don’t want to get left holding the bag, paying a player for his performance earlier in his career. And that remains true whether that player is Strawberry or Dunn or Delgado or Pujols.
With perfect hindsight, the Mets would have signed Alonso to a 10-year extension after his rookie season. That would have kept him under team control thru his age-34 season. If we check the archives, we’d likely see ChrisF advocating for that very thing, even if the salary he proposed was outlandish for a pre-arb player.
The Wilpon-era Mets erred in not locking up Alonso to a team-friendly deal when they had the chance. Now it’s up to Cohen not to add a long-term deal that doesn’t make business sense. Just because Cohen can afford to carry mistakes doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it.
We need an adult in the room, someone not afraid to make an unpopular decision if it’s the right one. And you better believe that not coming to terms with Alonso on a long-term deal will be unpopular with the fanbase. Perhaps the new GM will be that guy, although it would completely shock me if that decision was entrusted to him or her. Maybe David Stearns will have to be the adult.
Or perhaps Cohen has already made that decision, given the one-year deals to date.