MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Houston Astros

Which Ace(s) Should the Mets Extend?

It’s no secret that the biggest strength of the Mets in 2017 is their starting pitching. There’s a reason this group has been nicknamed the “Four Aces” (former five) and that is simply a reflection of the talent this group possesses. Of course, we’ve never seen the full potential of this unit, as injuries have plagued the staff over the past few seasons. But 2017 finally offers us a clean slate and a chance to finally see what the rotation is capable of.

However, all good things must come to an end at some point. When you possess this much talent in one area of your roster it is simply not feasible to retain the entire group long-term. Similar to a team like the 2003 World Series Champion Florida Marlins, that boasted potential star pitchers in Josh Beckett, Carl Pavano, Brad Penny, and Dontrelle Willis, there is going to come a time where the “Four Aces” are going to have to split up. Unfortunately, it is an unavoidable truth that starting pitching will become expensive when you consider the value of the starters on the Mets roster.

Back in 2014, Dave Cameron put together an excellent model on FanGraphs discussing how to predict future free agent contracts. Here’s how the formula works:

Take a player’s 2014 WAR forecast—I used a 50/50 hybrid of ZIPS and Steamer, but this should work just fine with either one by themselves—and multiply it by five; that’s his expected annual average value. A +5 WAR player will get around $25 million per year. A +3 WAR player will get around $15 million per year. A +1 WAR player will get around $5 million per year. This is basically the scale of per season salaries that we see in MLB right now.”

His model also provides a formula on predicting the length of future contracts, but because we are predicting events three to five years from now, we’re going to avoid putting a hard number on how long the potential extensions would be. Another thing to be considered is his use of the number five as a multiplier. In another 2014 FanGraphs article written by Cameron, he examines the cost of the average win at the Major League level and finds that it falls somewhere between the $5 and $7 million dollar range. Of course, inflation has changed things since then, but based on that principle, I broke down the contracts of the starting pitchers who signed MLB contracts this past offseason. In order to get workable numbers, players with less than 1.0 WAR had to be rounded; 0.4 or less rounded to zero and not averaged, 0.5 or higher rounded to one. This led to an average of approximately $8 million dollars per win, so for the purpose of this exercise, the projected 2017 WAR of each pitcher will be multiplied by 8.0. 

Name ZiPS Steamer AVG Proj WAR AAV
Noah Syndergaard 5.5 5.6 5.55 $44.4
Jacob deGrom 3.7 3.6 3.65 $29.2
Matt Harvey 2.5 2.7 2.60 $20.8
Steven Matz 2.8 3.3 3.05 $24.4
Zack Wheeler 1.1 1.1 1.10 $8.8

Matt Harvey

When The Dark Knight reached the big leagues, he was immediately one of the most talented hurlers in the game. By 2013, he was the undisputed ace of this pitching staff and “Harvey Day” was a phenomenon that brought Mets fans back to when Doc Gooden took the mound. Unfortunately for the right-hander, surgeries to repair a torn UCL and treat thoracic outlet syndrome have severely diminished his abilities, not to mention his free agent value. What was once a 6.5 win player only has a serviceable average projection of 2.6 in 2017.

Using the formula that we had discussed before, Harvey is worth an average annual value of approximately $20.8 million dollars. The Dark Knight has stated that he is open to inking a long-term extension with the team, but the tricky is factor is his agent, Scott Boras. Boras could be looking for something in the neighborhood of Stephen Strasburg’s extension–eight years, $217 million–for his client. Two years ago, I don’t think anyone would blink at that valuation for the 27-year-old, but now there is too much baggage behind Harvey.

Since he was the first to debut, Harvey will be the first to reach free agency in 2019. This will put the team at an immediate crossroads: re-sign Harvey and risk hampering their payroll or put complete focus on retaining the rest of the staff.

Noah Syndergaard

After R.A. Dickey won the NL Cy Young in 2012, the Mets’ front office made arguably the best trade in franchise history. In return for Dickey, the team received a super prospect in Travis d’Arnaud. They also happened to get another two prospects in right-hander Noah Syndergaard and outfielder Wuilmer Becerra. Well, five years later Travis d’Arnaud has not lived up to his potential, but Syndergaard has ascended to superstar status. He wowed us in only 150 innings in his rookie season and then demolished expectations by becoming a 6.5 win player in 2016 and finishing eighth in the NL Cy Young Voting.

Right now, Thor is one of the best pitchers in baseball. He is worth way more than the meager team controlled salary he is earning in 2016. Our average annual value calculations place as a $44.4 million dollar per season player, which is more money than any other pitcher in history has been paid. Syndergaard posted a WAR of 6.5 in 2016 and is projected to reach 5.5 in 2017. The three highest-paid players in the MLB are all starting pitchers and command salaries north of $30 million: Kershaw $35.5 million, Greinke $34 million, Price $30 million. It’s only a matter of time before Thor takes his place up there.

Syndergaard will reach free agency in 2022, but between his talent, personality and flair, and the way he has captured the hearts of Mets fans everywhere, it reasonable to believe the team will make re-signing him a number one priority. Even with his high price tag, it seems likely that the Mets will never let Thor hit free agency.

Jacob deGrom

Jacob deGrom’s path to success has always fascinated me. From playing shortstop at Stetson University, to tearing his UCL in the Mets minor league system, to winning NL Rookie of the Year, and becoming a five-win player. deGrom also only got his break on a count of a twist of fate. Brought up to be a reliever in May of 2016, deGrom was thrust into a spot start after Dillon Gee suffered an injury. (Rafael Montero had been brought up to debut the game before, and at the time was considered one of the Mets’ top prospects.) Until that point, deGrom had been flying completely under the radar. After an outstanding debut against the Yankees, deGrom solidified his place in the Mets rotation with quality start after quality start, earning him the NL Rookie of the Year award. Following a stellar five-win effort in 2015, deGrom regressed a bit in 2016, but also battled injuries and had season-ending surgery.

deGrom profiles at an average annual value of approximately $29 million and is set to hit free agency in 2021. Judging by his past performance, deGrom is presumably worth something resembling that price tag. deGrom is easily an ace like his fellow compatriots, but does not possess the personality and flair that Harvey and Syndergaard do. Given his low-key nature, the only real knock on deGrom is his age, which will undoubtedly cause him to earn less.

He’s is the oldest member of the pitching staff at 28 years old. With that being said, by the time he is eligible for free agency, deGrom will be 33. Since deGrom will be entering his decline years at that point, it’s fair to say that his value will take a hit. This will benefit the Mets in the long run as they will probably will be able to re-sign him at a discount, which would be a relative bargain for this staff.

Steven Matz

Steven Matz has long been be a highly-anticipated addition to the Mets starting rotation until debuting in 2015. Despite being a 2009 draftee, Matz had to postpone his professional debut until 2012 while he was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery as a result of an injury sustained in an instructional league game in 2010. The left-handed, Long Island native was certainly worth the wait, posting an impressive ERA of 2.25 across his whole minor league career. When Wally Backman was still with the Mets organization he was even quoted as saying that Matz was the best starting pitching prospect in the system, a system that included Noah Syndergaard.

When he finally reached the bigs, Steven Matz performed well posting a 2.27 ERA with solid peripherals in his first major league action. Matz built on that in 2016, posting a 3.40 ERA in 22 starts with a win-loss record of 9-8 … but the issue has been his inability to stay healthy. In two seasons on the 25-man roster, he has only made a total of 28 starts. By comparison, Noah Syndergaard started 30 games in 2016 alone. So even though he is projected a WAR of roughly 3.0 this season, it’s hard to really fathom what Matz can do with 30-32 starts in a full season.

Matz, like Syndergaard, will be a free agent in 2022, giving the team the flexibility to wait and see how his career pans out. Based on his estimated WAR in 2017–3.05–we can project Matz at an average annual value of approximately $24 million. If Matz reaches his potential–and we have no reason to believe he will not based on his performances to date–this valuation makes sense given that Matz has the opportunity to become a very solid number two or three starter on this staff.

Zack Wheeler

Trading away the expiring contract of Carlos Beltran was a priority of Sandy Alderson in 2011, and there was a fair amount of pressure on him to get a sizeable return. That return came in the form of Zack Wheeler, the San Francisco Giants’ sixth overall pick from the 2009 draft. This was an impressive haul for Alderson and Wheeler would become an instrumental piece in the GM’s plan to build one of the most formidable starting rotations that baseball has ever seen. When Wheeler reached the majors, he performed well. In 49 big league starts he posted a 3.50 ERA, but was constantly plagued by mechanical issues and a high walk rate. During Spring Training in 2015, Wheeler sustained an injury to his UCL, forcing him to become the fourth pitcher in this rotation to undergo Tommy John surgery. Not only did this rob him of the 2015 campaign, but Wheeler was forced to sit out 2016 as well.

Forced to battle for the fifth starter role, the situation does not bode well for Wheeler. Even if he was able to outperform Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo to win the job, Wheeler will be held to a strict innings limit this season, a necessary precaution coming back from Tommy John surgery. This will severely restrict his impact and it may even serve him better to work as a reliever for the majority of the season. Between the mechanical issues and injury to his elbow, Wheeler’s value is severely diminished. Our average annual value projection puts him at $9 million per season, but it’s very hard to judge because it is based on a year where his innings will be capped. Set to hit free agency in 2020, Wheeler has his work cut out for him as he will have a limited time to restore his value. It could be even more difficult if the Met cement the fifth starter role over the next few seasons and Wheeler finds himself as the odd man out.

Photo Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

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