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The question of whether to re-sign Javier Baez is becoming more fascinating by the day, as the Mets’ second baseman has looked like a star player/difference-maker since returning from the injured list a month ago.
The numbers are spectacular: in 23 games Baez is hitting .353 with a .682 slugging percentage and a 1.109 OPS, and while the former Cub has always been streaky hitter, he suddenly seems to have discovered at least a semblance of plate discipline that may lend added significance to this hot streak.
As one NL scout told me this week, “He’s definitely being a little more selective lately. I need to see a lot more of it to believe it could stick, but if he could ever commit to that approach he goes to another level offensively and his value goes up significantly.”
The problem for the Mets and any other team that may want to sign Baez as a free agent this winter is there’s not much time to make such an evaluation before the season ends.
Which makes the question of what it would take for the Mets to re-sign Baez especially intriguing. As well as whether doing so makes sense for them as they go about re-constructing next year’s team, presumably with a new head of baseball operations.
In polling scouts and executives on the question of Baez value, I heard a range of possibilities, with everyone I spoke to citing a number of factors that could land the price anywhere from a low end of $125 million over five or six years to a high end pushing $200 million over seven or eight years.
Among those factors:
1. The acrimony between MLB owners and The Players Association that is expected to make for a long and difficult negotiation toward a new collective bargaining agreement, perhaps causing teams to delay the winter business of signing free agents.
“Big-market teams are going to want to know what the new payroll tax threshold is, and what the penalties will be for going over it,” explained one exec. “And there’s the possibility that a payroll floor is adopted, which could affect the way some mid-and-small-market clubs spend this winter.”
2. The supersized shortstop class that could flood the market to the point where there aren’t enough megadeals to go around. How other teams rank Baez among the likes of Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, and Marcus Semien could determine not only the size of his contract but whether playing second base for the Mets would have much appeal for him.
“He’s fifth for me in that group,” one scout said, “and if the Dodgers decide to go with Trea Turner (instead of re-signing Seager) you start looking around the league and there may not be that many teams willing to pay huge money for all of these guys. So maybe prices come down at some point or Baez decides it’s worth it to play second base next to his pal (Francisco) Lindor. Maybe he takes a big one-year deal and waits until the shortstop logjam clears.”
3. Lindor’s influence on owner Steve Cohen could play a major role. Cohen seems a bit star-struck in developing a close relationship with his shortstop, having told acquaintances how much he thinks of Lindor’s talent and his smarts as well. Multiple sources say Lindor helped convince Cohen to trade for Baez at the July 30 deadline, so who knows, perhaps he’ll convince the owner to pay a big price for him to keep him.
“It’s a real thing,” a team source said of the Lindor-Cohen relationship. “Lindor could have a lot of say in whether Baez is here next year.”
4. The Lindor/Cohen dynamic aside, the Mets almost certainly will have new decision-makers on baseball matters in the front office who will evaluate the ballclub and decide whether they should spend most of their money on pitching or just how much they need Baez to help fix the underachieving offense.
“Baez is kind of a polarizing player,” one scout said. “Some evaluators love his all-around game, the dynamic athleticism, and they’re willing to live with the streaky nature of his swing-and-miss game. But someone else might evaluate that Mets’ offense and decide a more consistent hitter is needed.”
5. If Baez continues to look like a more selective hitter over the next couple of weeks he could convince a team or two that he’s matured in terms of having some plate discipline.
“It’s going to be hard to make that short-term evaluation,” a team exec said. “You don’t know if he’s just really seeing the ball well right now and laying off pitches he normally chases or someone has gotten to him and he’s making a conscious effort to change.”
Taking all of the different factors into consideration, the only consensus among scouts and execs is that it’s awfully difficult to put a price on Baez at the moment.
One thing they all agreed upon, however, was that he won’t be getting anywhere close to the $341 million over 10 years the Mets gave Lindor.
“That was a big overpay,” said one scout. “I think it was partly an overreaction to the Padres signing (Fernando) Tatis for $340 million and it was [a] new billionaire owner wanting to make a splash. Lindor was coming off a down year and he’d never played in a big market, never mind New York. With all of those shortstops that were going to be available, the Mets were the ones with the leverage so I didn’t understand why a guy like Cohen would cave on the price.”
Added a rival team exec: “If they had waited they could have saved a lot of money on Lindor.”
So what will Baez, who turns 29 in December, get as a free agent? While noting that any of the factors listed above could swing the price one way or another, most people I spoke with believe his track record as a free-swinger is too established to change the way he’s viewed even if continues to be more selective the rest of this season. Yet they also make the point that Baez’s athleticism should help him age well enough to convince a team he’s worth a seven-year deal in the $150 million range.
Whether the Mets turn out to be that team ultimately should make for great theater.