Jacob deGrom Leads Mets’ Off-Season Shopping List

LAS VEGAS — On Wednesday, the Mets formally announced their first major move of the off-season: the re-signing of closer Edwin Díaz to a record-breaking five-year, $102-million contract. The Mets, who won 101 games during the 2022 regular season, expect to compete for a playoff spot again next year and a reliable late innings reliever is essential for a top team.

But the Mets, who have numerous other players who reached free-agency, have more work to do. Chief among them: Trying to re-sign Jacob deGrom, the team’s ace who exercised the opt-out clause in his five-year, $137.5 million contract extension, passing on $30.5 million in 2023 for the chance at getting a larger deal.

Even though he missed large chunks of the past two seasons with injuries, other teams will probably flock to deGrom, 34, a two-time National League Cy Young Award winner. Over 156⅓ innings over the past two seasons, he posted a 1.90 earned run average. After he returned from a shoulder injury last season, he produced a 3.08 E.R.A. in 11 starts and guided the Mets to their only win in their wild-card round loss to the San Diego Padres.

Last winter, the Mets lured another ace who had multiple Cy Young Awards, Max Scherzer, to Flushing with a deal worth $130 million over three years, setting a record for highest average annual salary at $43.3 million despite Scherzer being 37 at the time.

Billy Eppler, the Mets’ general manager, said he spoke to deGrom before the team went home for the off-season after their early playoff exit. And before deGrom triggered his opt-out clause earlier this week, Eppler said he and Stephen Veltman, deGrom’s agent, had a couple of conversations.

“We just kind of made a pact to stay in touch,” Eppler said on Tuesday at the annual Major League Baseball general managers’ meetings, held this year in Las Vegas.

Eppler declined to quantify his level of optimism that the Mets can retain their star, but he did say deGrom had expressed a desire to stay with the only organization he has ever known. Eppler added: “There’s a good deal of interest there on his part. That was articulated a number of times throughout the season and reiterated in our most recent conversation.”

There are several teams around M.L.B. in need of starting pitching, including the Texas Rangers, who have a new ballpark and the resources to attract a top free-agent veteran starter like Clayton Kershaw, a Dallas native, or deGrom. Signing deGrom would very likely require a multiyear deal north of $100 million.

Should the Mets prove successful, they would be carrying four nine-figure contracts: shortstop Francisco Lindor ($341 million over 10 years), Scherzer, Díaz and deGrom. The team is owned, after all, by Steve A. Cohen, the hedge fund manager with a reported net worth of $15 billion who has shown a willingness to spend to overhaul the franchise, approved a M.L.B.-leading $288 million payroll in 2022 and who didn’t mind that a new payroll luxury tax was nicknamed after him.

“When Steve Cohen reached out and signed Scherzer, he really raised the flag that we are here to be a championship level organization,” Scott Boras, the agent for Scherzer and many other stars, said on Wednesday. He added later, “It brought a really credible illustration of what the new Mets organization is about, and that had not been there for a long time.”

Asked on Wednesday if it was difficult to have such large contracts all on one team while other roster needs remain, Eppler said: “It would be a heavy allocation to say the least. But you’d look to solve other areas of your roster internally if that could be done or in the trade market where you don’t have to pay the free-agent rate, so to speak. That’s a needle that can be threaded, but you’d have to be mindful of it.”

The Mets, of course, have other rotation holes to plug beyond deGrom. Chris Bassitt, a reliable starter who had a 3.42 E.R.A. in 2022, is a free agent. So is Taijuan Walker (3.49 E.R.A.). Eppler said the Mets had to decide on their $14 million club option for Carlos Carrasco (3.97 E.R.A.) by Thursday. If not, his contract calls for a $3 million buyout.

Eppler said the Mets told center fielder Brandon Nimmo, like deGrom a homegrown standout who is a free agent, that they would like to keep him. Boras, also the agent for Nimmo and Walker, had colorful ways of describing the demand for both players.

For Nimmo, Boras used movie allusions (including a questionable pun): “There are a lot of teams in the free-agent market that are in the waters for a center fielder. Whoever Pixar guy will be the lucky one to be finding Nimmo.”

For Walker, Boras turned to a geographical play on words: “He’s one of the few players that’s under 30 and he’s had multiple 150-inning-pitched seasons. So essentially, Taijuan is on an island. And I think the only question is who is willing Taipei?”

Free agency doesn’t officially begin until Thursday, but teams are free to negotiate with their current players beforehand. Eppler said he didn’t know how soon deGrom wanted to sign, but said the Mets would also do their due diligence on other options in the meantime.

“That’s part of the communication from our side to them — and to everybody — is that we’ve got business to do,” he said. “There are players we want to acquire and things we want to accomplish this winter time, so we’re going to get down to it.”

He added later: “We want to stay in communication with each other and be very transparent with each other, so they’ll feel like we have a sense for what we’re doing and hopefully we have a sense of what they’re doing. And we’ll see what happens.”

The San Francisco Giants and superstar outfielder Aaron Judge, who spent seven seasons with the Yankees but is now a free agent for the first time in his career, have been linked for obvious reasons. Judge grew up less than two hours away from San Francisco in Northern California, attended Giants games as a kid and watched Barry Bonds. And the Giants are a big-market team that missed the playoffs in 2022, were below average offensively and have relatively little committed to their 2023 payroll.

Asked about the team’s interest in Judge, the presumptive favorite for the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award who smashed a league-record 62 home runs this year, Farhan Zaidi, the Giants president of baseball operations, declined to talk about specific free-agent players on Wednesday.

But broadly, Zaidi said: “From a financial standpoint, there’s nobody that would be out of our capability to meet what we expect the contract demands will be. And then it’ll just be a question of whether there’s mutual interest and how we put together the best possible team.”

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