Jacob deGrom's age, injury history make Mets departure easier to stomach

Oct 8, 2022; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) sits in the dug out before game two of the Wild Card series against the San Diego Padres for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Citi Field.
Oct 8, 2022; New York City, New York, USA; New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom (48) sits in the dug out before game two of the Wild Card series against the San Diego Padres for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Citi Field. / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

You had to feel like this was coming, going all the way back to the first day of spring training when Jacob deGrom seemingly couldn’t wait to tell the world that he had every intention of opting out of his contract at the end of the season. And then defiantly doubled down on that stated intention even when another injury put him on the shelf in March.

Nobody does that.

But deGrom felt he’d been underpaid, even though he signed a market-value deal for five years, $139 million in 2019 (albeit with a lot of deferred money), two full years before he was to reach free agency.

Whatever his beef, it was clear this time around he wanted every last dollar anybody was willing to put on the table.

That it’s the Texas Rangers, with their spring training in Arizona, three time zones from his home in Florida, is as irrelevant as the reports that deGrom didn’t allow the Mets to make a final offer. 

Bottom line, deGrom would have remained a Met only if owner Steve Cohen had a special place in his heart for a guy who rose from obscurity as a converted college shortstop and ninth-round draft pick to become a two-time Cy Young Award winner and latter-day Tom Seaver.

That is, only if Cohen was sentimental enough to assume the huge risk of guaranteeing the kind of five-year, $185 million deal deGrom signed with the Rangers.

Except, news flash: Cohen didn’t become a multi-billionaire in the presumably ruthless hedge fund business by making decisions with his heart rather than his head.

And in this case, he made a perfectly understandable business decision, that deGrom’s recent injury history made it far too risky to guarantee him a five-year deal at top-of-the-sport money. In truth, I’d be surprised if the Mets had been willing to go beyond three years.

So this isn’t anything resembling Seaver, circa 1977, when the Mets made fools of themselves by trading The Franchise for a bunch of nobodies. 

After all, deGrom has pitched just 156 innings in the last two seasons combined because of his various injuries, and pitching coaches I’ve talked to say it’s hard to see him suddenly staying injury-free, especially now that he’s in his mid-30s, turning 35 next June.

Here’s how one such long-time pitching coach put it on Friday night:

“At this point, you have to say, based on the last couple of years, that it’s far more likely he’ll get hurt again than stay completely healthy in the coming years. His ability to generate the arm speed that produces such high velocity at his age makes him a freak, but it’s reasonable to believe that also puts him at greater risk of injury, just because of the force that arm speed creates.

“I’d have to say it’s a huge risk for anyone to give him a five-year deal right now. I guess if you’re Texas and you’re desperate for pitching and desperate to try and contend…that’s the only way you can rationalize it.”

Of course, you can also make the argument that for a win-now team that is also rather desperate for championship-caliber pitching beyond Max Scherzer, the Mets had reason to make such a rationalization themselves.

Except they also have options that allowed them to essentially walk away from deGrom without regret. And you have to think Cohen will spend big bucks to make sure the Mets sign either Justin Verlander or Carlos Rodon.

Because that becomes crucial part of the narrative now. Those are the only two ace-type starters remaining on the free agent market, and the Mets absolutely need one of them or the deGrom departure takes on a completely different feel.

The Mets are sending signals that they would prefer Verlander on a two-year deal, perhaps three if they’re forced to outbid the Los Angeles Dodgers or even the Yankees. He’s coming off a brilliant Cy Young Award-winning season but he’s also turning 40 in February and he got banged around in the postseason.

Considering that Scherzer turns 39 next July and has had several injuries in recent years, (most of them unrelated to his pitching arm) it’s obviously risky counting so heavily on two aging superstars at the top of the rotation, as we saw this past October.

For that reason, I think the Mets would be better off locking up Rodon. Yes, he’s had arm troubles as well, but the lefthander pitched a brilliant, injury-free season for the San Francisco Giants in 2021 and he’s 10 years younger than Verlander, turning 30 next week.

Obviously it would take a longer-term deal to get Rodon, probably six years because there will be so much competition for him. Say, six years and $160 million. That comes with plenty of risk as well, but he’s also still essentially in his prime, coming off two outstanding seasons, even if the ’21 season was shortened to 132 innings by a shoulder injury.

If the Mets can limit Verlander to a two-year deal, maybe he’s more of a sure thing. But because they’ve developed so few home-grown starting pitchers in recent years and appear to be another couple of years away from getting any real help from their farm system, investing in Rodon seems like a gamble worth taking.

For that matter, the deGrom departure figures to allow the Mets more latitude in filling their various holes, from extending for Brandon Nimmo to paying for some top relievers to put in front of Edwin Diaz, to bringing back Chris Bassitt.

In any case, the belief that Cohen will still spend heavily seemed to influence the public reaction to the deGrom departure. This wasn’t a case of being cheap so much as making a reasonable decision and, for the most part, I get the sense that Mets fans are ok with it.

It’s still a sad day for the franchise simply because deGrom’s brilliance made his starts nothing short of must-see events in recent years, and ideally it would have been nice to have him finish his career in Queens and eventually see his number retired.

In the end, I guess you can’t blame him for taking the big money and running off to Texas. But you’d also like to think, after getting paid very nicely while making a total of 26 starts the last two seasons, he would have wanted to work out a deal to stay and win a championship with the Mets.

Unfortunately, he gave off quite a different vibe from the moment he talked about wanting to opt out.