It’s hard to think of the right word to describe the Mets’ winter. It hasn’t been “good,” given their prominent position in not one, but three separate sexual harassment scandals. In terms of the team’s on-field talent, the organization has given fans much to look forward to, but the offseason is still somewhat incomplete. Hoped-for defensive upgrades in center field didn’t materialize, and long-term deals for two soon-to-be-free agents — Francisco Lindor and Michael Conforto — have yet to come to fruition either.
Lindor’s extension still feels all but inevitable. New York sent Cleveland too much talent to have him for one season, and it’s hard to imagine a better use for new owner Steve Cohen’s money. And while the 27-year-old shortstop has a good deal of leverage, he does have some incentive to take a deal now, given how many other stars at his position will be available in free agency next year.
A Conforto extension is less certain. Mets president Sandy Alderson said he expects to speak with both players about deals soon, but Conforto is probably less likely to be persuaded away from testing free agency, especially since he could be looking at a particularly friendly market at the end of the year.
There are a few good reasons to believe Conforto and the Mets will reach an agreement before then. As MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo pointed out, two of the major extensions New York has agreed to in the last decade or so were given to David Wright and Jacob deGrom, both of whom were homegrown players, just like Conforto. And if Cohen is truly willing to spend like a big market bully, making an offer the outfielder can’t refuse might sound completely reasonable. According to The Athletic’s Tim Britton, the sum of New York’s guaranteed commitments plus estimated arbitration raises for 2022 comes to $135.5 million; the estimated cost of extending Lindor and Conforto for a total of $55 million annually brings that total to $190.5 million. We estimate the Mets’ 2021 payroll at around $198 million, which means retaining both stars wouldn’t put the team in uncharted territory.
But Conforto would still need to believe that whatever the Mets offer him is the best he could get, and unlike Lindor, he isn’t likely to have much competition at his position in free agency. Here is a sampling of the rest of the outfield market for 2022:
2021-22 Free Agent OF Class, w/Last Two Years’ Stats
*denotes player with mutual option for 2022
This list will grow if team options are not exercised for Andrew McCutchen, Adam Eaton, Gregory Polanco, Kole Calhoun or Ender Inciarte, or if player options are not exercised by Brett Gardner, Charlie Blackmon or Jackie Bradley Jr. Those players would add to the middle of this group, though, not the top, which would be pretty well commandeered by Conforto. Canha has been every bit as good over the last couple of seasons, but he’s four years older and doesn’t have as long of a track record nor the same pedigree. Soler could raise his stock by turning in a year that mirrors his 2019 season, and Schwarber and Pederson could help themselves considerably if they show they can capably hit lefties. But it would take a lot for any player to compete with Conforto as the best long-term bet on the market.
Over the past four years, just eight outfielders have compiled more WAR than Conforto’s 13.1, and only 13 qualified outfielders have a better wRC+ than his 132 mark. He’s finished in the 86th percentile or better in xwOBA in three of the last four seasons and is coming off his best year when it comes to xBA (85th percentile) and xOBP (91st percentile). His career-best 157 wRC+ in 2020 was heavily influenced by a .412 BABIP, which far outpaces his career average of .305, but it isn’t as though it happened for no reason. Already known for having a fairly balanced all-fields approach, Conforto elevated his line-drive rate to a career-high 30.3% (which ranked second among qualified hitters) and had baseball’s 14th-lowest pull rate. He did this while still hitting for above-average power and posting a double-digit walk rate for a fifth straight season.
Conforto can handle hitting lefties well, too. His 142 wRC+ in 86 plate appearances against southpaws in 2020 was his best mark of his career, but he also posted a 121 wRC+ against them in ’18, and his production against lefties in ’17 and ’19 was only slightly below average. He doesn’t have the sexiest exit velocities, and his whiff rates consistently skew toward the higher side. But left-handed hitters who aren’t vulnerable to platoon disadvantages or pull-side shifts and who can draw walks and hit for power aren’t very common, and Conforto has demonstrated all of those skills for the majority of his career.
The one thing that could suppress his market might be his defense. Teams have shown a real aversion in recent seasons to good hitters with suspect value in the outfield, and Conforto’s glove hasn’t been nearly as steady as his bat throughout his career. It’s hard to draw conclusions from his year-by-year defensive totals because of how frequently the Mets have moved him around the outfield, so here is a breakdown of his career defensive numbers for each position:
Michael Conforto Defensive Metrics
*Did not record data for 2015 season.
There’s broad consensus that he’s stretched in center field, though the numbers disagree on whether he’s unplayable there or simply mediocre. His work in the corners is more well-regarded, though, which keeps the floor of his defense in a manageable place. And if New York’s recent lineup decisions are any indication, Conforto’s days of manning center may already be behind him. After playing up the middle a small majority of the time in 2018, he was placed in center for just over 20% of his defensive innings in ’19 and didn’t play a single game there in ’20. Another season of above-average corner defense on top of his typically strong offensive performance should cement his position as the best outfielder available heading into 2022, and one whose company at the top of the market is either thin or non-existent. That gives Conforto every reason to make the most out of the opportunity, and with Scott Boras representing him, auctioning his services to the highest bidder might well be the endgame.
That highest bidder might still be the Mets. Their best outfielder aside from Conforto is Brandon Nimmo, who is only under team control for two more years. After him are Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith, who aren’t natural outfielders, and rentals like Albert Almora Jr. and Kevin Pillar. Meanwhile, the top of New York’s farm system is quite thin at the position beyond Pete Crow-Armstrong, who was drafted last year and is still a teenager. If you’re hunting for a contender likely to be in search of outfield help after this season, look no further than the Mets.
That doesn’t mean Conforto should make things easy on them. One of the few encouraging things about the past year in baseball is that the financial blows dealt by the pandemic didn’t appear to crush salaries in the latest round of free agency. There should be teams looking to spend again next winter. Conforto might not be a star on the level of Lindor, but he could still inspire a substantial bidding war.