The Yankees may have Aaron Judge as a free agent. The Dodgers may have Trea Turner and Clayton Kershaw plus Tyler Anderson to worry about.
But the Mets are the only team that will seriously contemplate — and likely give — the qualifying offer to as many as four players: Chris Bassitt, Jacob deGrom, Edwin Diaz and Brandon Nimmo. The only question there involves Bassitt. But if the Mets are fine picking up their end of a $19 million mutual option for 2023, then they won’t blink in making him the $19.65 million qualifying offer when Bassitt turns down his side of the option.
If the Mets’ only issue were dealing with the financially weighty part of their offseason, that would be challenging enough. Because there is no way they can keep their four main free agents plus fill out the rest of the roster and stay within the parameters of a $300 million payroll, which Steve Cohen indicated was his plan several weeks ago on “The Show with Joel Sherman and Jon Heyman” podcast.
But this is far from the Mets’ lone issue. There are compounding matters. For instance, it is not just Bassitt and deGrom who are free agents in their rotation, but Taijuan Walker and perhaps Carlos Carrasco, too, if the Mets find his physical review too troubling to pick up a $14 million 2023 option (it is really an $11 million decision because there is a $3 million buyout). It is not just Diaz who is a free agent in the bullpen. It is Seth Lugo, Trevor May, Adam Ottavino, Joely Rodriguez and Trevor Williams, too, plus Mychal Givens when the Mets reject their end of an $8 million 2023 mutual option. And then there’s the fact the Mets would love to find power bats in the marketplace.
Thus, they just can’t buy their way to a deep roster for 2023 unless Cohen wants to go to $350 million or more in payroll (doubtful). So it is not only vital that the Mets dance well with the top of their own free-agent class, but that Billy Eppler’s baseball operations department has the kind of offseason at the margins it did in going 6-for-6 in big acquisitions last offseason (Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar, Bassitt and Ottavino). They have to find inexpensive or cost-neutral ways to restore contending talent and depth to the roster.
For example, the best of the Yankees bullpen this year came through minor trades and minor league signings. The team’s most trusted playoff trio arrived via a small deal for Mike Tauchman (Wandy Peralta), a small deal for Diego Castillo and Hoy Park (Clay Holmes) and a minor league signing from 2016 (Jonathan Loaisiga). The Mets must hit on those kinds of maneuvers because, at present, their best reliever under control is Drew Smith, and their minor league system is not ready to deliver productive power arms to the majors.
So think minor league free-agent signings, small trades and the Rule 5 draft. They also are going to need ingenuity. With so many key roster spots to fill, is this the moment, for example, to seize on a Jeff McNeil batting title and strong Wins Above Replacement campaign to see whether he can be turned into multiple pieces? The Rays, for one, have long liked McNeil and remain offensively challenged. Could the Mets get multiple pitching pieces from Tampa Bay’s deep reserves to make sacrificing a homegrown asset such as McNeil worthwhile? The Mets then could sign someone such as Kolten Wong in free agency to play second (if the Brewers don’t pick up his 2023 $10 million option).
Or the Mets might decide that McNeil is a core piece too central to what they do and avoid any bold exploration of the trade market with him (my gut says they at least listen to see if the interest is great enough to solve multiple issues).
One item the Mets should pursue is to try to move the two years at $24 million owed to James McCann for a similar contract(s). The idea would be to stay cost-neutral while improving the overall roster.
By season’s end, Tomas Nido had usurped McCann as the starting catcher, and Francisco Alvarez lurks. Alvarez just had ankle surgery. The Mets say he will be a full participant in spring. But does the surgery cause any trepidation about whether he will be ready for the 2023 major league season?
And that doesn’t even touch on the big question with Alvarez: Can he handle the defensive end of his position at a high enough level for a championship contender in what will be his age-21 season when that side of the ball is not his strength? With the physical and mental responsibilities layered on catchers nowadays, it is hard to have a defensively deficient catcher and expect to win at the highest level — even if that catcher might be able to outhit many shortcomings. The Astros continually stick with Martin Maldonado despite his lack of offense because the staff believes so much in him. The terrific pitching and wins keep flowing.
The Mets have said all the right things about Alvarez’s growth as a defender. But what do they believe internally? The Blue Jays kept saying Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was a third baseman until he was a first baseman. Will the Mets keep saying Alvarez is a catcher until he is the regular DH? That would put a different value on him and raise the need for a different kind of catcher they might need to pursue. A free-agent starter type such as Omar Narvaez or Christian Vazquez becomes more front and center then. Or do they load up high-end prospects to trade for a two-way catcher such as Oakland’s Sean Murphy?
If the Mets legitimately believe Alvarez can quarterback championship-level run prevention, then they can try to sign a minor league deal with a stopgap veteran such as Sandy Leon. Or is there a team out there with a defense-first catcher who might want to see whether they can regenerate Dom Smith? Could the Mets trade Smith to the Brewers for Victor Caratini? To the Marlins for Nick Fortes? Teams, though, may just wait until the Nov. 18 deadline and see whether the Mets tender Smith a contract. If not, he becomes a free agent.
Regardless of how they approach the catcher position this offseason, part of the plan should be to explore whether they can swap McCann to see if they can deepen the roster, especially their pitching.
What follows are calls I think the Mets should make to see whether there could be traction on a McCann deal, rather than anything I have heard is a possibility.
Here is a reality, though: McCann is now generally viewed as an overpaid backup catcher. Eppler mentioned after the trade deadline that the Mets had not sacrificed any of their top 19 prospects in deals. Someone lower on that list may have to be paired with McCann to make a trade feasible. A club could just go into free agency and get his skill set in, say, Roberto Perez (albeit after hamstring surgery) for a heck of a lot less. Really, this is about whether there are teams out there that would see the use of $24 million on McCann as better than on a distressed item they have at a similar cost.
These are just 3Up ideas:
1. McCann to the Cardinals for Steven Matz.
Did the Cardinals see enough in Matz’s injury-laced, disappointing 2022 season to want to move on from his remaining three years at $34 million? The venerable Yadier Molina is retiring. Do the Cardinals believe Andrew Knizer is truly a starting catcher, or could he use a defensively strong partner such as McCann?
The Mets actually thought they had Matz signed on a three-year contract last offseason, and Cohen publicly ripped his representatives for — in the Mets owner’s belief — reneging to take four years at $44 million from the Cardinals. Would Cohen forgive and forget?
Matz had two lengthy IL stints in 2022 (due to knee and shoulder injuries) and pitched to a 5.25 ERA (5.70 ERA as a starter). Do the Mets feel like he can be regenerated into a back-end starter to replace, say, Walker? If not, could he be a lefty reliever and be a better use of $11 million-$12 million per year than having McCann as the backup catcher.
The Blue Jays are in a similar situation with another failed lefty starter out of last offseason’s free agent class. Yusei Kikuchi has two years at $20 million remaining, and — in theory — could be deployed by the Mets in the same fashion as could Matz. But no team may be deeper in good catching options than Toronto. So there is no room at that inn for McCann.
2. McCann to the Mariners for Chris Flexen or Marco Gonzales plus Jesse Winker.
Cal Raleigh emerged as the Mariners’ long-term No. 1 catcher. But Curt Casali is a free agent, the Mariners lost faith in Luis Torrens and Tom Murphy is a non-tender candidate. There is a role for McCann as Raleigh’s backup.
Winker is owed $8.25 million in 2023 and is coming off a poor 2022 season. He had knee surgery to end his season and faces neck surgery. I would bet Seattle would like to see the final year of his contract go poof.
Winker has emerged as a small-time villain at Citi Field dating to 2019, when he waved to the fans after homering for Cincinnati — a gesture he has repeated a few times since. Those are the kind of look-at-me theatrics Buck Showalter would not like. Plus, he has a similar profile to Daniel Vogelbach — a lefty hitter who you want nowhere near the field defensively. But Winker did hit 24 homers with a .949 OPS in 2021 for the Reds, and that was not all the product of Cincinnati’s home bandbox.
Winker, in this construction, is essentially the necessary evil for the Mets to get their hands on a back-end starter in Flexen or Gonzales. The Mariners have their four main starters — Luis Castillo, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and Robbie Ray — under control for years, so they can benefit from reallocating their money to other areas by moving a starter.
Flexen is due $8 million next year. Gonzales is guaranteed $18.5 million for 2023-24 with a $15 million 2025 team option with no buyout — there is a $250,000 assignment bonus if Gonzales is traded. Flexen and Gonzales are not the kind of miss-the-bat power pitchers that Eppler favors. But the Mets might not be able to bank exactly what they want in every instance to build pitching depth.
If the Mariners took on the assignment bonus, between that and McCann’s salary, they would be adding $24.25 million in commitments the next two years. If the Mets took on Gonzales and Winker, it would mean taking on $26.75 million in commitments the next two years. So a near wash. Gonzales also has started the 12th-most games (131) in the majors over the past five seasons. The Mets could use that kind of durability and dependability.
The Mariners, to trade a starter in a market in which so many teams will want that commodity, probably will need another piece coming back, even for a league average-ish arm such as Flexen or Gonzales.
3. McCann to the Giants for Anthony DeSclafani.
DeSclafani had his best season in 2021 (13-7, 3.17 ERA), and rolled that into a three-year, $36 million free-agent deal to stay with San Francisco. The righty dealt with right ankle problems in 2022, pitched to a 6.63 ERA in five starts and was shut down in late June to undergo surgery. He is expected to be ready for next season.
He is a salary mirror of McCann — both are owed $12 million in 2023 and again in 2024. The Giants had hoped Joey Bart, the second overall pick in 2018, would be the heir to Buster Posey. But in the first season following Posey’s retirement, Bart struggled. There is no sure thing he is a starting-caliber catcher, and the Giants, hoping to get back to high-level contention in 2023, need a veteran to protect them.
DeSclafani is in the vein of Matz and Kikuchi — a distressed asset you would try to return to being a useful back-of-the rotation piece.
Because we love you in this little corner of the world, we will add one more (a 3Up extra):
4. McCann to the White Sox for AJ Pollock. Or a more interesting version might be a catcher-for-catcher deal: McCann to the White Sox for Yasmani Grandal.
In the latter proposal, the White Sox would save money this season because Grandal is due $18.5 million. But then his contract ends while Chicago would still have McCann’s $12 million on the books in 2024.
The Mets, when Brodie Van Wagenen was GM, made a four-year, $60 million offer to Grandal after the 2018 season. Grandal wanted north of that. The Mets were concerned about being shut out at the position, and signed Wilson Ramos for two years at $19 million. Grandal ended up signing a one-year, $18.25 million pact with the Brewers, and turned 28 homers in that 2019 season into a four-year, $73 million contract.
Next year he will be entering the final season of that deal having cratered from one of the most offensively productive catchers in the majors. In 2021, he hit 23 homers with a .979 OPS. Last year, that fell to five homers and a .570 OPS. If the Mets thought Grandal could recapture his power, would they pursue him?
McCann had his most productive two years with the White Sox in 2019-20 (the second year as a sidekick to Grandal), and parlayed that into a four-year, $40.6 million deal with the Mets.
But perhaps swapping him for Pollock would be more feasible. Pollock, who turns 35 in December, is owed $13 million in the final season of his contract, plus there is a $1.5 million assignment bonus if he is traded. Pollock is potentially a better Darin Ruf (I know, just about anyone would be better than the Mets version of Ruf). Pollock is a righty swinger with a history of hitting lefties (.935 OPS last year) who is not as good a defender as when he was younger, but still is far better than Ruf as a corner outfielder.
Just for thoroughness, if the White Sox traded Grandal and Pollock (and took on Pollock’s assignment bonus) for McCann and Ruf, it would net out as the White Sox assuming $28.75 million and the Mets $31.5 million and potentially getting a bit more of the power they crave.
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