For an offseason defined by a glacial market, collusion-adjacent bad vibes, and the inexplicable unemployment of a number of useful big league free agents with opening day now in sight, the last week or so has been very busy. Instead of entering what is clearly a badly malfunctioning free agent marketplace, a number of the game’s biggest stars have opted to lock in multi-year, nine-figure extensions with their current teams. In the last week alone, rising free agents Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, Mike Trout, and Paul Goldschmidt re-upped with their current clubs; Nolan Arenado had signed a similar deal back in February. Younger stars like Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, and Alex Bregman signed similar but less generous deals that gave them financial security—and gave their teams some very valuable cost-certainty—through their arbitration years and into what would have been their first years of free agency.
On Tuesday, Jacob deGrom and the Mets became a surprise addition to this growing group. Days after deGrom expressed concern that no extension would get done before the beginning of the season, SNY’s Andy Martino announced that the Mets and deGrom had reached an agreement on what turned out to be a five-year, $137.5 million deal that could go to six years and $170 million if the team picks up its option for the 2024 season. There’s a full no-trade clause, and deGrom will have an opt-out after the 2022 season. All told, it’s a fairly normal extension for a pitcher of deGrom’s age (31 in June) and caliber (extremely good at pitching) in a market this profoundly borked—a little less rich than Sale’s, longer than Verlander’s, infinitely more extant than the one that deGrom’s peer Dallas Keuchel somehow just never received this offseason.
Because the Mets were involved, though, the deal was both something of a shock and the result of a decidedly abnormal process. While the team’s ownership routinely gets criticized for being cheap, it’s more accurate to say that they are weird, and petty. Cheap, too, in all the cheapest ways, but the issue that the Mets have with spending money on baseball players is as much about how they do it as it is about how much they spend. The owners insist on signing off on every front office decision, and their oddball hang-ups have shaped the roster just as much as their personal unwillingness or material inability to spend like a big-market ballclub. Patriarch Fred Wilpon is a salty crustacean with a passion for old-timey bullshit and a soft spot for a certain type of red-ass caucasian baseballing type; his son Jeff, the team’s COO, would wear a uniform if he could and delights in gratuitous Boss gestures. To see this in action, look to the team’s strange ongoing feud with Devin Mesoraco, deGrom’s personal catcher during his 2018 Cy Young season, who is threatening to retire because he believes the team is not honoring a handshake agreement in the minor league contract he signed during the offseason. Rather than just release him, the Mets have placed Mesoraco on the restricted list, to send a message that amounts to, This is a message, and we’re sending it. Some of ownership’s tics—their obsession with and loathing for the Yankees, their recursive Let’s Remember Some Guys dedication to bringing marginal players back to the organization—are just small-time and goofy. The institutional inability to steer clear of petty personal bullshit with employees, on the field and in the front office, is much worse.
Another organization might have long ago struck a deal with deGrom similar to the one that the Cleveland Indians made with Corey Kluber, another late-blooming Cy Young Award-winner. The Mets, who err on the side of peevish inaction as a general rule and struggle with self-scouting in a way that few other major-league teams can match, just kept going year-to-year with deGrom throughout his arbitration process. Even as deGrom continued to improve from his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2014 to his Cy Young one last year, it was unclear whether ownership thought he was really that good, or worth the money it would take to keep him. It’s a mistake the team makes over and over—virtually every one of the team’s young stars has been hired-over or repeatedly underrated in recent years. As it happened, deGrom was and is really that good, which is how the Mets wound up paying him $17 million after arbitration this season; that contract will be subsumed into this one.
Ken Rosenthal reports that management was lowballing deGrom as recently as last weekend, offering him a deal that topped out at three years and $88 million, with a strange $2 million player option. This is why deGrom had expressed his doubts that he would be able to get a deal done—a deal that he and his representation had been talking about wanting to make for more than a year—and why co-ace Noah Syndergaard was moved to speak up on deGrom’s behalf on Sunday. “Jake’s the best pitcher in baseball right now,” Syndergaard said. “I think they should just quit all this fuss and pay the man already.” In large part because of his willingness to say things like that, Syndergaard is the sort of player that the Mets both can’t win without and which ownership habitually alienates. Matt Harvey had that role before him. It’s a lousy road to travel, but it at least has a nice apartment in Los Angeles at the end of it.
With this contract, though, deGrom is in a different position. He’s now a franchise cornerstone, for one of the wobbliest and weirdest organizations in professional sports. He’ll be paid commensurately, and will play his part with distinction and dignity. If the past is any indication, deGrom will be worthy of the contract. If the past is any indication, the organization will struggle—in public and with no great dignity, through various anonymous gripes piped to Daily News reporters and a thousand cheesy chiseling slights visited on everyone below—to be worthy of deGrom. At the end of another strange offseason, as the league’s power elite steer towards a very dangerous confrontation seemingly on principle, it’s nice to see that some things remain the same.