Newly-minted New York Mets owner Steve Cohen has quickly become the richest individual at that position in MLB. He’s already signaled an ability to spend aggressively. That will obviously lead to a ton of Mets-related rumors during surrounding impending free agents.
Mets fans who have grown accustomed to the Wilpons’ penny-pinching budgetary woes are eager to see what stars the Mets are suddenly in play for. Will the Mets go after JT Realmuto? Trade and extend Francisco Lindor? Other than maybe Yoenis Cespedes, it’s been over a decade since the Mets were realistic bidders for a marquee free agent.
New York Mets free agency and the pandemic
This year is going to be an unusual free-agent market due to the pandemic. Teams may be reluctant to spend, and a lot of players’ seasons are tough to evaluate due to the short schedule. How does someone value Marcell Ozuna’s league-leading HR and RBI totals? Or Marcus Stroman’s no-show? The free-agent talent pool appears relatively weak, but it could be bolstered by an unusual number of non-tenders.
Nevertheless, New York has glaring weaknesses and is expected to bid aggressively to fill those hills. Here are their likeliest options when it comes to targeting free agents.
New York Mets free agent targets
JT Realmuto, Philadelphia Phillies
JT Realmuto is currently the best catcher in baseball, who’s shown consistent power and elite pitch-framing skills. He’s led all catchers in WAR since 2017 and is sixth in defensive WAR in that same time span. He’ll even steal an occasional base every now and then, a true rarity for a catcher.
Realmuto is a risk on a big contract. Catchers’ bodies are prone to break down and while solid, Realmuto doesn’t have a loud enough bat to move off the position. His top BBRef comps include guys like Matt Wieters and Jonathan Lucroy, All-Star who quickly lost a step and were no longer starters by their early 30s.
Still, as steep as Realmuto’s potential dropoff may be, the dropoff from him to the next tier of free-agent catchers is even steeper. The only other above-average option may be James McCann, who’s broken out in the past two years with the Chicago White Sox, but served as a back-up to Yasmani Grandal. His .289/.360/.536 line looks nice but the sample size is very small. T
he Mets hold two options on current catchers Robinson Chirinos and Wilson Ramos but they were both terrible this past year, particularly on defense. If New York can’t land Realmuto, its next best options are try and swing a deal for buried Dodgers prospect Keibert Ruiz or punt on offense for a season and just find someone who can pitch frame and throw out baserunners (Mike Zunino?).
George Springer, Houston Astros
The Mets have three excellent left-handed bats in Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo and Jeff McNeil (or four if you count Dominic Smith as a left-fielder), none of whom are particularly capable defenders, especially in centerfield. The Mets have struggled to supplement this group with even a part-time defensive caddy, cycling through guys like Keon Broxton, Juan Lagares and Jake Marisnick.
George Springer is the obvious solution, a guy who could complement the lineup as a right-handed bat and stick in center field for the long haul. He had another strong year in 2020 but there’s likely lingering concern over the role he played in the Astros cheating scandal. He also made $20 million in his last year before becoming a free agent and will not be cheap. Still, if the Mets are serious about ending their dependence on stopgaps, Springer is the prize.
Jackie Bradley, Jr., Boston Red Sox
The also-run here could be Jackie Bradley Jr, the long-time Red Sox who has maintained solid defense and quietly matched his career-high in OPS+ during the shortened season (118). He’s just a career .239 hitter but offers enough power, base running and defense to still be at least an average regular even with a low average. He’ll be 31 in 2021.
Marcus Stroman, New York Mets
The Mets figure to be strong contenders for Marcus Stroman, a New York native who they traded for in 2019 and has been a down-ballot Cy Young contender in the past. He’s more of a ground ball machine than a power pitcher when he’s on, so the Mets would do well to shore up their defense behind him.
But at the moment, he looks like the second-best starting pitcher on the free agent market after Trevor Bauer. While Stroman cited the pandemic as the reason for sitting out the season and that could well be the case, one wonders if there were clubhouse or organizational reasons why Stroman chose not to play after injuring himself during “summer training”.
If Stroman was unhappy about the New York training staff or front office, then the ownership change could be a plus. It could also mean nothing at all. Presumably, the Mets also want to retain Stroman so the initial trade doesn’t appear a complete write-off. They’ve already agreed to give him a qualifying offer valued at $18.9 million for 2021, which, given the pandemically-depressed free agent market, there’s a non-zero chance he will accept outright.
Jose Quintana, Chicago Cubs
Jose Quintana is the next most reliable starter on the market. He’s always relied more on deception and only threw 10 innings in 2020, but he figures to be at least a league-average innings eater going forward, and that should be good enough with the Mets’ offense. Even an average pitcher would be a step up from the disastrous results they got from last year’s free agent signings (Michael Wacha, Rick Porcello).
Taijuan Walker, Toronto Blue Jays
Taijuan Walker is an intriguing option. He posted strong numbers in the shortened season coming off Tommy John surgery in 2019. He’s never thrown more than 169.2 innings but he’ll only be 28 years old next year. Walker figures to have plenty of suitors but it’s not clear what his market will look like. A two or three-year deal with an opt-out in case his 2020 was for real is probably what’s in store, although a team like the Mets could jump to the front of the line with an aggressive offer.
Other veterans that make a certain amount of sense include lefties JA Happ (experience in NY, reasonably solid 2020) and Mike Minor (bad 2020 but Mets have shown interest in the past), and righty Charlie Morton (strong recent record but has signaled he will either retire or stay near his home in Florida).
Yusmeiro Petit, Oakland Athletics
Signing free-agent relievers is inherently risky. Hopefully, a new Mets front office will be better at identifying options. Sandy Alderson’s prior regime was never great at this either (see: Frank Francisco, Antonio Bastardo, Anthony Swarzak). Perhaps, with a looser budget, the Mets will be able to outbid for the best arms and not just the best value ones.
As long as they have Edwin Diaz at closer, pitchers like Kirby Yates, Liam Hendriks or Brad Hand are less likely options due to their price tag. However, that’s not a given. Another intriguing intra-division option available might be Shane Greene, and it would be nice to pick off a valuable player from the rival Braves. However, his 2.60 ERA this past season disguises a drop-off in strikeout rates and fastball velocity.
Enter crafty longman Yusmeiro Petit, who is capable of pitching multiple innings and mitigates higher-than-average home run totals by limiting walks and base-hits. Petit was an international signee by New York almost 20 years ago now, back in 2001. He put up eye-popping strikeout numbers before being traded for Carlos Delgado in 2005. Petit flopped as a starter and bounced around for a long time before settling in as a late-blooming shutdown relief pitcher, throwing a no-hitter for San Francisco.
Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati Reds
The Mets don’t figure to be an free agent attractive option for Trevor Bauer, the number one starter on the market for several reasons. In addition to previously suggested he wanted a one-year contract, Bauer wants to go to a team that’s win-now and has a strong analytics department.
The Mets are certainly planning on contending next year but there are more obvious favorites if Bauer values certainty, and their analytics team currently lags behind many others as a result of the Wilpons ‘old-school’ preferences (and unwillingness to spend on front office staff). Although this is something that is likely to change under Steve Cohen, Bauer may prefer a team that already has an established record.
Marcell Ozuna, St. Louis Cardinals
The Mets also don’t seem like a great option for Marcell Ozuna, who’s streaky, free-swinging power is a bit reminiscent of free-agent bust Yoenis Cespedes. And New York is well stocked with offense-first players like Ozuna; their real needs are for players who contribute on both sides of the ball.
Other players who would context-neutral help the Mets, such as Adam Wainwright or Masahiro Tanaka, seem unlikely to leave their current teams as free agents.