The first time Jacob deGrom said he was opting out of his contract with the Mets, he mentioned it in passing. Really, the first statement that one of the best, if not the best, pitcher in baseball had decided to enter free agency after the season ended was easy to miss.
DeGrom slipped in his opt-out decision while answering a question about Mets owner Steve Cohen, who just a day earlier had said he would wait until after the season to discuss deGrom’s contract with him. DeGrom took a different path. Instead of waiting until the end of the season, the right-handed ace, after an injury-plagued season, announced his thought process on the exclusion.
“Yes, that’s the plan,” deGrom said on March 14. “I’m not going to get into that any more, but that’s the business side of baseball. As a player, you put in waivers, and that’s the business side. For me, I don’t want this to be a distraction. Like I said, I’m excited about this team. I’ve said it before: I’ve loved being a Met and I think it would be great to be a Met. for my entire career. But the plan is to exercise that option and be in constant contact during the offseason with the Mets and Steve Cohen and management.”
It all took place during deGrom’s first press conference of the spring, in March after the owners’ lockout ended, when the Mets brought their star players into their conference room in Port St. Lucie. The interview, which was conducted in front of 10 to 15 reporters, was designed for deGrom to reveal mundane things like how his offseason went, his goals for next year and an update on his recovery from injuries
These press conferences were so routine, and so mundane, that what came out of deGrom’s mouth as he sat at a table emblazoned with the Mets logo with a microphone in front of him was, at first, hard to believe. His decision to opt out was so hidden and so casually mentioned that, a minute later, deGrom was asked to clarify exactly what he had just said.
A reporter asked: “Just to be clear, are you opting out?”
DeGrom simply replied, “Yes.”
Once the tweets were sent out, editors asked for headlines about breaking news, and the dust settled, deGrom’s decision to sit himself out wasn’t so hard to believe. It was the timing of his announcement, which came after he had missed half of the previous season due to injury, and while his 2022 season was unknown, it was surprising. DeGrom, as it turned out, was betting on himself.
Before the 2019 season, the Mets and deGrom, who owns Wilpon, agreed to a five-year, $137.5 million contract extension with an opt-out after the 2022 season.
DeGrom was coming off his first Cy Young season when he agreed to the deal, and by most accounts, this contract extension was thought to be team-friendly. A few days earlier, Chris Sale and the Boston Red Sox had agreed to a five-year, $145 million contract extension. A year later, Gerrit Cole and the Yankees agreed to a record nine-year, $324 million deal, the largest contract ever given to a pitcher, with an average annual value (AAV) of $36 million. Then consider Max Scherzer’s contract with the Mets, who broke Cole’s record when he signed a three-year, $130 million contract with an AAV of $43.3 million before the 2022 season.
If deGrom hadn’t been opted out, he should have received $32.5 million from the Mets in 2023. Now in free agency, deGrom is expected to receive close to Scherzer’s AAV and potentially break his record earning a few million more annually.
Throughout his 2022 season, a year that saw him suffer a spring training shoulder injury that delayed his debut until August, deGrom remained steadfast in his previously announced decision to ‘exclude’ At 34, deGrom remained confident he would show his usual dominance in the two months of the regular season left.
Then, over 11 regular-season starts and 64 ⅓ innings, deGrom went 5-4 and posted a 3.08 ERA, his highest ERA since 2017, and the same 14.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 2021. off his superhuman podium last season, but he still showed the familiar flashes of brilliance and dished out the 100+ mph fastballs that earned him back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2018 and in ’19. His 2.24 xERA and 2.13 FIP would also have ranked first in MLB had he thrown enough innings to qualify. Finally, he finished on a high note with just two earned runs allowed and eight strikeouts recorded in six innings against the San Diego Padres in his only postseason start in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series.
We’ll soon find out in the coming weeks and months if deGrom’s playoff shutout on Oct. 8 at Citi Field in front of more than 42,000 adoring fans was his last start as a Met.
What we do know for sure is that deGrom has said, several times in his career and as recently as this past season, that he hopes to remain a Met. One of his stated goals is to play for the same team that drafted him for his entire MLB career. Those are two statements that bode well for deGrom’s chances of re-signing with the Amazins. But talk is cheap. Whether No. 48 stays in orange and blue will, of course, come down to the almighty dollar.
The intrigue is whether the Mets believe his recent workload (just 156.1 innings pitched in his last two seasons combined) and his injury history (elbow, forearm, back and shoulder problems, including a partially torn his UCL right in 2021), as well as his age (turned 35 in June) align with the lucrative multi-year contract deGrom expects. Otherwise, he might get his money elsewhere.
Hours after the Mets’ season ended abruptly, general manager Billy Eppler spoke privately with deGrom about the ace’s future. Eppler indicated that he came away from that conversation optimistic that the two sides could reach an agreement.
“We’ve had a fair amount of dialogue, he and I, throughout this season,” Eppler said last month. “And I think we have an idea of what makes each other tick. Things are positive. The relationship is positive. We’ll see where it goes in the end, but he knows how we feel.”
In August, a couple of weeks after deGrom made his season debut, Cohen approached the topic of deGrom’s future with similar confidence, from the team’s side of the negotiations anyway. Cohen, who has a net worth of $17.5 billion that makes him the richest owner in MLB, is expected to make a fair offer to deGrom in part because, when healthy, he is the most baseball dominant
He’ll also get a fair bid because the team’s goal of deGrom and Scherzer leading the Mets to their first World Series in 36 years fell short this year. DeGrom and Scherzer combined for just 34 starts, and all things being equal, that’s the kind of production expected from just one of them. So even if the Mets do it again with their bullies and keep this window open longer, injury will remain a risk and the road to glory no guarantee.
But for any team that signs deGrom, front-court executives know that a two-time Cy Young Award winner with a 2.52 career ERA greatly increases their organization’s chances of hoisting a World Series trophy. Some teams may be willing to ignore the risks of injury and age. Will the Mets be one of them?
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure it stays,” Cohen said in August. “But it’s their decision, not ours.”
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