NEW YORK (AP)The sting of playoff failure still fresh, New York Mets general manager Billy Eppler wasted little time engaging Jacob deGrom in a late-night talk about his future.
With the two-time Cy Young Award winner atop a long list of potential free agents, Eppler is fully aware of all the work ahead if the Mets are going to build on their successful regular season.
Five days after New York was eliminated by the San Diego Padres at home, Eppler and manager Buck Showalter wrapped a bow around 2022 during a news conference at Citi Field. They lauded the players and expressed pride in the commendable accomplishment of winning 101 games – second-most in franchise history – while also acknowledging the disappointment of a brief postseason appearance that lasted only three days.
”I think the team, they’re frustrated. And rightfully so,” Showalter said Friday. ”I’d rather win 92 and be the last team standing.”
Figuring out how to dethrone Atlanta in the NL East and play deeper into October is the challenging task for Eppler and his staff heading into an uncertain offseason.
Unable to hold off the Braves for the division title, New York (101-61) took the top National League wild card but got knocked out quickly by Joe Musgrove and the Padres in a best-of-three series played in Queens. Pete Alonso managed the Mets’ only hit Sunday night during a 6-0 loss in the decisive Game 3.
In the hours that followed, Eppler spoke with deGrom about the prospects of him returning. The 34-year-old right-hander has said he plans to opt out of his contract, passing on a $30.5 million salary for next year to become a free agent.
”We talked one-on-one. He knows how we feel. I know how he feels. It was a good conversation,” Eppler said. ”We had a good amount of dialogue he and I over the course of this season, and I think we have a sense of what makes the other one tick. So I think things are positive, the relationship is positive, and we’ll see where it ultimately goes.”
Sidelined by injuries to his forearm, elbow and shoulder blade, deGrom returned in early August to make his first start in nearly 13 months. He went 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 11 outings, faltering down the stretch before tossing six gritty innings of two-run ball in a Game 2 playoff win that extended New York’s season.
The four-time All-Star has spent his entire professional career with the Mets, and they would like to pair him again with 38-year-old co-ace Max Scherzer, who has two seasons remaining on a $130 million, three-year deal.
Injuries limited Scherzer (11-5, 2.29 ERA) and deGrom to 34 combined starts, and Scherzer was hit hard in losing his last two critical outings, to Atlanta and San Diego.
”We did build the team to be able to pitch in the postseason. We headlined it with two guys that are going to end up in the Hall of Fame,” Eppler said. ”It doesn’t come with guarantees.”
The rest of the pitching staff is in flux.
Third starter Chris Bassitt (15-9, 3.42 ERA) has a mutual option for 2023 at $19 million with a $150,000 buyout. Taijuan Walker (12-5, 3.49 ERA) seems likely to decline his $7.5 million player option for a $3 million buyout. And the Mets hold a $14 million option on 35-year-old righty Carlos Carrasco (15-7, 3.97 ERA) with a $3 million buyout.
Eppler said the Mets are still discussing whether to exercise their options on Bassitt and Carrasco, with deadlines looming in the days following the World Series.
Elsewhere, almost the entire bullpen must be rebuilt.
Edwin Diaz, who struck out more than half the hitters he faced this season as baseball’s most overpowering closer, can become a free agent. Same for top setup men Adam Ottavino, Seth Lugo and Trevor May, plus right-hander Mychal Givens and effective long man Trevor Williams.
”I think it’s pretty safe to say we’re going to have to hit the market to fill that out, because it can’t be filled out entirely from internal candidates. So it’s going to be a big point of focus,” said Eppler, who constructed the Mets’ first playoff team since 2016 in his initial season as GM.
”There’s going to be a lot of work to do this winter.”
New York finished tied for fifth in the majors in runs, and most of the lineup should return intact – with one notable possible exception. Leadoff batter Brandon Nimmo, who provided an .800 OPS and scored a team-high 102 runs, also is eligible for free agency.
The hustling Nimmo played quality defense in center field as well. Like deGrom, he has spent his entire pro career with the Mets.
”I haven’t really thought about the finality of the end yet,” Nimmo said before the playoff opener last week, ”but I’ve had great memories here this year. And however it works out, I will think fondly of this place.”
Eppler said he has been empowered by owner Steve Cohen to continue running baseball operations.
New York hiked payroll to $274 million this year, highest in the majors for the first time since 1989. Seeking a sustainable winner and calling this season ”step one in a blueprint,” Eppler said Cohen is committed to spending big until the club is better positioned to fill holes with a deeper farm system.
”I have the utmost confidence we’ll be cutting edge and ahead of the curve,” Showalter said.
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