The Mets Can Afford the Billion Dollar Rotation, and Are Poised to Enter a Dominant Era

There is no need to worry about whether or not the Mets will be able to keep all of their young starters under contract. Even if they are all as good as advertised, the Mets will have them under control to build around for years to come.

Now that the Mets have done the right thing by re-signing Yoenis Cespedes (pinch me!) the directive of the Front Office has shifted from making the team competitive to keeping the team competitive.

One of the reasons that the Mets are competitive now — and had the cash to sign Cespedes to such a lucrative deal — is because the salaries of the five young aces in the Mets rotation are all still under team control*.

*Major League players do not hit arbitration, where their salary is set by an arbitrator, until three years in the league, and they do not hit free agency until six full years in the majors.

Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler are slated to make less than $7 million combined this season, even though they would stand to earn over a billion dollars combined on the free agent market. Harvey alone will earn the lion’s share of that, $4.325 million, as he is the only one already in arbitration (Harvey has 3 years and 72 days of Major League service time). If you’d like to have that number put in perspective, Bartolo Colon made $11 million in 2015, while Mike Pelfrey (of the 4.52 career ERA) just received a guaranteed two year, $16 million deal.

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But the Billion Dollar Rotation party ends soon. Harvey is already into arbitration and will get more expensive each year until he becomes a free agent after the 2018 season. deGrom and Wheeler reach arbitration in 2017, and by 2018 only Matz will be making the minimum. Naturally, this has caused fans to wonder whether the Mets will be able to keep them all, or afford to be able financially to support them with a decent team.

Sandy Alderson stated it brilliantly just last week:

“We’d love to keep them all, and we just have to make sure that we’re providing for that as we go forward,” Alderson said. “We recognize there’s a ‘quote’ window, but we want to have a sustainable operation beyond that. So this is not about being all in in a three or four-year cycle and then back to bust.”

Well, good news, Mets fans. I decided to take a quick-and-dirty look at the Mets payrolls over the next few years (with help from our friends at Cot’s Contracts) and it appears that the escalating salaries for the pitchers are more manageable than most people think :

mets cots arb proj

(You can right-click and open this image full-sized in a new tab)

In order to make these arbitration estimates, I used the salaries of generally comparable players who went through arbitration (e.g. Jordan Zimmermann, like Wheeler, has always been good, but not an ace, and underwent Tommy John). Mike Axisa of CBS Sports did his own estimates a few days after I did mine, and his estimates are all very close to mine. Thank you, of course, to the unparalleled Cot’s Contracts for the original source chart.

Obviously, many assumptions were made which you can see reflected in the chart above. First, all of the players are assumed to be healthy and productive. Second, the Mets make no new acquisitions and all players are allowed to leave once they reach free agency. The important part of this project is the bottom line, the total salaries. The total salary figure never balloons out of control:

total cots.JPG

The Mets estimated salary for 2016 is about $139 million when accounting for the 40-man roster, DL days, etc. In 2017, the Mets will return the same roster minus Neil Walker, Bartolo Colon, Alejandro De Aza and Jerry Blevins, although the salary remains the same due to many players receiving arbitration raises. This will leave the Mets with a hole at second base, but with at least two internal options to fill it (Wilmer Flores or Dilson Herrera).

Before 2018, the Mets lose Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, Antonio Bastardo, Addison Reed and Ruben Tejada to free agency, making a serious dent in their 25-man roster. However their payroll obligations drop by about $25 million that offseason, giving them payroll flexibility to make some replacements.

It is only before the 2019 season that the Mets will have very tough decisions to harvey instamake with their young core, namely Harvey and Jeurys Familia (while Jenrry Mejia and Josh Edgin also reach free agency). If the Mets decide to keep those two through arbitration and reach free agency, Harvey will be 30 before Opening Day 2019 and Familia will be 29.

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The key takeaway from all of this is the following: the Mets can easily afford the Billion Dollar Rotation up through 2019 without drastically expanding the payroll, and the Billion Dollar Rotation only becomes a financial problem if all of them are healthy and effective. If all five are all healthy and effective for this entire period, the Mets will be so up to their ears in playoff revenues that nobody will be out of reach financially.

Even so, we must hope that Alderson & co. stick to their guns about avoiding a “boom-and-bust” cycle this time around by keeping cheap talent flowing from the minor leagues and by having the fortitude to make tough choices — like letting a starter go to free agency — if necessary.

But there is a lot of time between now and 2019 when that kind of choice would be mandatory. Perhaps the Mets can sign Harvey to a reasonable extension (providing guaranteed money instead of tenuous arbitration awards) and get an option year at the end like they did with Jon Niese; perhaps one of the starters will be injured or ineffective, ameliorating the potential financial problem; or perhaps another starter will emerge, making Harvey expendable.

A lot can happen in three seasons. Harvey burst onto the scene at the end of 2012, but was still a college kid in 2009. Syndergaard made a splash in the majors in 2015, but was just a 19-year-old in Low-A three years prior. Three years before his debut, Steven Matz was in the second year of a quagmire of Tommy John rehabilitation, and had dropped completely off Mets prospect lists.

Ultimately, we only run into the “worst” version of the problem if they are all amazing. And if they are all amazing, we ought to win a World Series or two.

So, for now, just enjoy it. The Mets have put together a strong, competitive roster for 2016 that will return almost in its entirety for 2017. In 2019, Harvey hits free agency but the Mets two most expensive contracts that year are David Wright (only $15 million) and Juan Lagares ($9 million). If deGrom, Syndergaard, Matz and Wheeler are all dealing at that point, that’s still an incredibly cheap and productive core to build around, and they ought to have the salary flexibility (only committed $80 million after arbitration raises) to do something about it.

The Mets have had the intelligence, the foresight, and the luck to put together a roster that can compete for many years and which has the flexibility to meet many challenges. I can’t wait to see it unfold.

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Brian Mangan is an attorney born in Flushing and living in New York City.