No matter the sport, the free agency dance is a delicate one, partners placing their hand on the other’s lower back, wondering whether they should lead or just follow.
It can be even more unnerving in Major League Baseball when a major star approaches free agency. The club has to determine, sometimes very quickly, whether it’s more feasible financially and competitively to submit to salary demands or trade the player before he can leave, hoping for something decent in return.
Let’s look at recent history. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Baltimore Orioles figured they wouldn’t be able to resign franchise icons Paul Goldschmidt and Manny Machado. So Arizona traded Goldschmidt, due to be a free agent in 2020, to the St. Louis Cardinals. Baltimore shipped Machado, now a free agent, to the Dodgers. Both received decent packages in return.
In Washington, the Nationals decided to gamble they could re-sign Bryce Harper, so they did not trade him during the 2018 season. Harper reportedly turned down a 10-year, $300 million deal to stay in Washington and left the Nationals flapping in the breeze.
The New York Mets are in that position right now with Jacob deGrom, the National League’s reigning Cy Young award winner. Due to become a free agent after the 2020 season, the club is hoping to convince the right-hander to sign a contract extension keeping him away from free agency.
On Thursday, deGrom addressed the issue in length for the first time at the team’s Spring Training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. And if the team, and its fans, were hoping for the pitcher to be conciliatory, they came away very disappointed.
“I honestly have no clue. There hasn’t really been many talks,” deGrom said. “But that can change in one phone call. I just don’t really know.”
Even more foreboding was what came next. DeGrom, 30, said the Mets have until the end of Spring Training to strike a deal, and if they don’t, he might consider a self-imposed limit on home many innings he would pitch in the 2019 and 220 seasons.
“I think that’s going to be a discussion that’s going to have to be had with my agents,” deGrom said. “I’m going to have to sit down with them and really see what they think is best for me moving forward.
“You play this game because you love it and then, you know, you have an opportunity to look out for your family and your future. So, I think, just, you have to see what’s right for you to do.”
Just look at what halfback Le’Veon Bell did this season with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. He voluntarily sat out the season in order to maximize his value in free agency. Consider the trade demands Anthony Davis, a free agent in 2020, imposed upon the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. Unhappy stars now feel empowered to assert themselves.
The first note has been played. The dance for leverage has begun.
The Mets took care of deGrom after last season. They raised his salary to $17 million (from $9.6 million) for the 2019 season to avoid arbitration, in hopes it would put him in a different state of mind. But it doesn’t appear that it has. And now even Mr. Met is walking around with his hands covering his eyes.
For the last two seasons, MLB’s top free agents have sashayed into a strange new marketplace. Owners are more hesitant now to offer stars like Harper and Machado what they feel they deserve and the player’s union is very upset about it.
So, perhaps in an effort to strike back, many agents have begun to advise clients, like deGrom, to float the idea they might not be willing to overextend themselves in the years prior to free agency to prevent injuries which might decrease their value.
Complicating the situation between deGrom and the Mets is his agent last season was Brodie Van Wagenen, who is now the general manager of the Mets.
Just last summer, Van Wagenen engaged the Mets in hopes they would consider extending his contract. By signing on one dotted line, Van Wagenen went from the guy trying to get all he could for deGrom to the one who hopes to keep all he can from him.
“There’s been plenty of conversations but no offers exchanged,” Van Wagenen said. “I have no doubt that the two sides will know each other’s positions, if nothing else, by the end of camp, and hopefully we’ll be on the same page.”
If Van Wagenen is concerned about deGrom’s subtle threat about placing a limit on the innings he pitches, he did not sound like it on Thursday.
“I don’t anticipate any concerns,” Van Wagenen said. “We want to protect Jacob deGrom as much as Jacob deGrom and as much as his agents want to protect him because he matters to us, not just during the regular season, but his impact is even more important for us in October. So, as far as managing workloads with or without an extension, we’re going to make sure that the player’s health is considered.”
This is a critical time for the Mets. Since losing to the Kansas City Royals in the 2015 World Series, the franchise has lost its way. They were 77-85 last season. In his short time on the job, Van Wagenen has worked hard to acquire pieces to assist the rebuild. But there is no greater piece in New York’s puzzle than deGrom, and losing him would strike at the heart of the franchise.
“Jacob is 100 percent a part of our future now and hopefully for years to come,” Van Wagenen said. “Offers and contract negotiations can be complicated processes. It needs to have analysis done on the club side, it needs to have analysis done on the player’s side. We are still going through our considerations on the club side, and once we have those done, we’ll obviously communicate some of that information to the player and his agent.”
Already a two-time All-Star, the NL’s 2014 rookie of the year led the Majors with a 1.70 ERA in 2018. He struck out 269 hitters. But because the Mets offense was so anemic, he ended the season with a 10-9 record.
“I think that Jacob’s season last year, we’re probably never going to see anything like it again in our lifetime,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said.
Regardless of how he pitches, or how often, deGrom is going to make a lot of money in the next two years. But he obviously will want more, perhaps somewhere around $150 million over five years.
Can the usually indigent Mets afford that? Perhaps. Would they spend that? Hard to say. Will they even need to consider how hesitant owners now are to enrich pitchers who will be 32 years old in their free agent season? We will see.
“Jacob has earned such equity in this clubhouse,” Van Wagenen said. “He is not only an important part of this team, he is one of the best players in the game right now regardless of what position he plays. He has the respect of his teammates. He doesn’t put the attention on himself. He goes to work every day. And regardless of the environment and the circumstances, he shows up and puts up.”