It’s December in New York and so that means the Hot Stove is heating up. Major League Baseball’s Winter Meeting is convening once again and when baseball executives meet, they can’t help themselves from doing deals.
The hottest two players on the free agent front are Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto: Where will they land? Reports are that the Mets are not actively pursuing Ohtani, but signing Yamamoto is their number one goal this offseason. Across five seasons in Japan’s NPB, Yamamoto compiled a 70-29 record; his eye-popping 1.82 ERA over those five seasons isn’t a typo. Nor is his 0.935 WHIP, or 6.4 H/9. His 9.3 K/9 is solid, and the 2.1 BB/9 shows that he keeps his pitch count down – perhaps demonstrating durability and longevity. Most importantly for the Mets, he’s 25 and won’t turn 26 until next August.
All of this means that he’s going to cost a record-breaking amount of money – and the only three teams who can afford that kind of outlay – Dodgers, Yankees and Mets – are rumored to be the finalists to sign this supremely talented pitcher. The floor appears to be $200M – my guess is that Steve Cohen will not let money make the decision – he’ll listen to his baseball professionals about whether the investment in Yamamoto curtails future player acquisitions.
The Mets appear to be hoarding minor league talent as a way of addressing twin goals: A pipeline for fresh talent on an annual basis and being able to use minor leaguers as trade chips to acquire other teams’ top players. The Mets’ minor league teams are light on pitching talent, but there is a significant amount of duplication in the position player ranks.
The recent signing of Luis Severino is not unlike the Taijuan Walker pick-up a few years ago. Walker was a relatively low-risk signing with a really high upside. For the first half of 2021, it looked like the team caught lightning in a bottle: Walker was an All-Star (thanks to deGrom’s injury); but Walker faded badly in the second half of the season. His 2022 was more consistent and his record was 12-5 with a 3.49 ERA. In Severino, the Mets are hoping that the Yankees suffered through his injury bounce-back year and that next year will be a healthy one for him. When’s he’s pitching well, Severino is a very good pitcher – a well above average Number 4 starter. A rotation that includes Kodai Senga, Jose Quintana, Yamamoto and Severino (with Tylor Megill the odds-on favorite for the 5 spot) is one that other teams will have difficulty contending with. I would be remiss if I didn’t recount a conversation I had with a Pinstripes fan before the 2019 season. He contended that Severino was a better pitcher than deGrom, mostly because deGrom was – get this – injury prone!
On the position player front, recent reports have the Mets considering Matt Chapman – whose Gold Glove would fit nicely next to Francisco Lindor on the left side of the infield. Teams considering Cody Bellinger – hopefully that list includes the Mets – may be wary that his 2023 performance is an aberration, which may explain why Bellinger is not more frequently mentioned as a hot topic this year. It’s also possible that a team with resources might load Bellinger up with a two-three year contract with a high average annual value, giving him the chance to cash in twice. It’s a risk for the player, but where there is risk – there is also reward. The flip side of this situation is former Mets Michael Conforto, who recently exercised his player option with the Giants after a mediocre season in San Francisco.
My hope is that the Mets aren’t one and done this off season. They struggled last year largely because of bullpen issues caused by Edwin Diaz’ injury at the World Baseball Classic. Their offensive woes were partly due to under-performance by players unlikely to have repeat down seasons. A full season of Francisco Alvarez, a return to form by Jeff McNeil and Cody Bellinger swatting 30+ HRs behind Lindor and company should make a good lineup formidable. Investing this year should be viewed as getting better not just in the short term, but for the long haul as well.
Rumor has it that the Mets have “no interest” in trading for Juan Soto. That makes sense given that Soto is a one year rental. He will almost certainly test the free agent waters. His refusal to accept a reported $400M from the Nationals means he wants unbelievable dollars season after next. If the plan is to build for the long term, a one year rental who is signaling a future on the open market is not the way to go.
Of course, the elephant in the room is what the team plans to do with Pete Alonso. If they can’t sign him to an extension, and it pains me to write this, then trading him for a haul of pitching prospect(s) may be the only thing to do. Clearing Alonso’s salary makes signing Bellinger’s cost a swap – and Bellinger adds better defense. The most important thing about this situation is not to overvalue Alonso because he’s a “homegrown” player. There’s always been a romantic notion that somehow players developed by the home-team are more valuable – and that’s simply not so. Do you think the Braves are pining over the days of Freddie Freeman, or are they happy they traded for and extended Matt Olson? Freeman is a great player – but the Braves got better when they let him go to the Dodgers and put Olson on their roster. The Mets have to have the same cold-eyed reason when they approach the Alonso situation: What move will make the team better?