NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Dread swept through the Mets’ executive suite here on Tuesday. They woke up confident that Ben Zobrist would become a member of the Mets, only to hear of the emergence of a mystery suitor.
A call from Zobrist’s agents that day only confirmed their fears. While the Mets had not been told they were outbid, they were put on notice that another threat had surfaced. That threat, of course, they learned later, was the Cubs.
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But days later, the Mets departed from the winter meetings with a revamped impression of that day. Perhaps it was a blessing that the Cubs won the bidding for Zobrist, who signed a four-year, $56-million deal.
The Mets are believed to have made a similar offer. But partly with the financial flexibility that came from missing out on Zobrist, the Mets found a way to upgrade at two spots instead of just one. Neil Walker arrived in a trade with the Pirates and free agent Asdrubal Cabrera is on the way, with his two-year, $18.5-million deal pending a physical.
With roughly $102 million in payroll commitments, the Mets appear to have some room to operate as they attempt to land a few bullpen arms and a centerfielder to share time with Juan Lagares. Have the Mets returned to their old free-spending ways? Clearly not. They remain highly unlikely to bid for any of the top-end free agents on the market such as Yoenis Cespedes
However, the Mets appear confident that they enough flexibility to at least fill their remaining needs.
“We have the resources to do it,” assistant general manager John Ricco said. “I think we have the money to do it. Whether or not we do it will probably depend on who the players are and whether we view them as an upgrade to what we have already.”
Second baseman Walker is projected to make anywhere from $10 million-$11 million in arbitration next season. But much of that cost was offset by losing the salary of Jonathon Niese, who went to the Pirates in the deal for Walker.
Niese is guaranteed $9 million next season. So, instead of shelling out anywhere close to the $14 million per season that Zobrist will average throughout his contract, the Mets upgraded for about $2 million.
Part of the Mets’ calculation also stemmed from Walker being in his final year of arbitration. The one-year commitment shields the Mets from the risk of a long-term deal and also prevents blocking prospect Dilson Herrera from eventually assuming the full-time job at second.
Additionally, should Walker perform close to his career norms, the Mets appear much more willing than the Pirates to extend a one-year qualifying offer. The move would ensure a draft pick as compensation should Walker depart as a free agent after 2016.
Throughout the offseason, the Mets appeared to be priced out of potential upgrades at shortstop, especially since they had been the perceived favorites for Zobrist’s services. But with Zobrist signing with the Cubs, and with Walker coming in a trade that was essentially salary-neutral, the Mets suddenly had the flexibility to sign Cabrera.