More questions than answers about future of Jacob deGrom and Mets

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Jacob deGrom treated image, winding back to throw with orange X behind head
Jacob deGrom treated image, winding back to throw with orange X behind head

As recently as this July, it was a near-certainty that Jacob deGrom would opt out of his Mets contract at the end of the 2022 season. He was the best pitcher in the world and ready to be paid like it.

Now, there is nothing about deGrom’s career that we can predict -- not his health, not his income, and not what his baseball future will look like.

This is not the first twist in the Mets/deGrom story.

Just a few years earlier-- although it feels like much longer, given all that has transpired since with the Mets and in the world -- the story seemed pointed in a different direction: DeGrom would pitch happily in New York for the rest of his career.

"I’ve said it before that I’ve loved my time here and wanted to be a part of this team’s future," deGrom said on March 27, 2019, sitting at a table next to then-chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon and GM Brodie Van Wagenen.

"I look forward to being here a long time. Hopefully, a lifelong Met and bringing a championship to New York."

That day, deGrom was thrilled about the five-year, $137.5 contract extension that he and his agents at CAA negotiated with Wilpon and Van Wagenen, who had represented him before taking the job with the Mets.

A few things happened in the months after that complicated the picture. DeGrom’s rise continued until he exhibited a level of dominance rarely seen in the game’s history, and Gerrit Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million contract with the Yankees.

A year later, Trevor Bauer set a record for average annual value with a three-year, $102 million deal from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Suddenly, deGrom was made to feel underpaid, and justifiably so. He was better than Cole, Bauer, and anyone else currently pitching.

DeGrom hired new agents and set his sights on earning fair market value.

When the new Steve Cohen/Sandy Alderson administration engaged in brief extension talks with deGrom this spring, they walked away with a feeling of sticker shock. No matter how great deGrom was, they couldn’t see the logic of giving a nearly 33-year-old pitcher a Cole-type contract.

Talks did not progress and were not expected to. Friends of deGrom got the sense that he was just as disillusioned with the new regime as he had become with the previous one. It all appeared to point toward an opt-out next year, and the conclusion of deGrom’s time as a Met.

Jacob deGrom
Jacob deGrom

DeGrom’s injury-spoiled season scrambled that equation. On Tuesday, the Mets made it official that their ace would not pitch again this season, and that his season did in fact end on July 7.

Mixed in with their disappointment about how the season went had to be a measure of relief that they did not agree to a new contract before it all happened. Can you imagine if the team was trying to begin a new era with ill-advised megadeals for both deGrom and Francisco Lindor on the books?

Now, there are nothing but questions regarding deGrom’s future. For the moment at least, we’re no longer asking if he can be the ageless Tom Brady of baseball, and settling in for more modest expectations.

Will deGrom return just as dominant as he was before all the injuries -- or has the most sublime phase of his career now ended, as it does for every athlete?

If he does return to form in 2022, will teams remain too spooked to offer him big money? One rival GM who has long coveted deGrom told me recently that the injuries changed his comfort level, and that he would now be worried about signing him.

Teams do tend to have short-term memories (see Javier Baez on the day of thumbs-down gate versus Javier Baez now), and a productive 2022 would likely restore much of deGrom’s value.

At that point, Cohen and his president of baseball operations could decide to spare no expense and pay deGrom more than is rational for a pitcher entering his age-35 season. Or they could let another team do it.

Or deGrom could stick with his current contract (though it’s hard to imagine him being happy about that -- one doesn’t hire new agents because they are satisfied with the status quo).

There was a time when all of this seemed clear. After a 2021 season that set deGrom and the Mets back, no one seems to know what will happen.