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Undrafted free agency a whole new ballgame for Mets

Brodie Van Wagenen and Mets will now pitch

Brodie Van Wagenen and Mets will now pitch undrafted free agents why they're the right team for them.  Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Pushed by the pandemic, MLB owners drastically altered the MLB Draft, a critical source of talent for every team, so they could pinch proverbial pennies. The draft came and went, five rounds Wednesday and Thursday nights, so now the Mets and others will wade into a new unknown and, potentially, a terrific opportunity: an undrafted free agent signing period unlike any other, beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday.

Because only 160 players were drafted — more than 1,000 fewer than normal — there are a lot of quality amateurs remaining. They can choose which team they want to join, instead of being beholden to the organization that picked them.

But signing bonuses for those players are capped at $20,000 — about 6% of what pick No. 161 signed for last year. That means some will have multiple offers with identical financial terms.

In a scenario where the money is the same, how can the Mets differentiate themselves and woo the best of the rest?

“It’s a good question,” general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said late Thursday night, after the Mets made their sixth and final draft pick. “The short answer is we don’t know how this is going to play out. This is a new, uncharted territory for any of us, whether it’s on the team side or even in the player community. We just don’t know how this is all going to unfold.

“Players are going to have to make decisions now based less on financial opportunities and more on player development opportunities, cultural fit and a relationship fit. So those are the things that we’re going to try to focus on.”

There are future major-leaguers in this pool of players, many of whom would have been drafted on Day Two (including rounds six through 10) in normal years. Their exclusion from the draft could change the course of baseball history without anybody really realizing how.

The Mets know as well as anybody the value that can be procured beyond the fifth round. Jacob deGrom, winner of back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards, was a ninth-rounder in 2010. Jeff McNeil, a multi-position All-Star, went in the 12th in 2013. And Seth Lugo, the team’s best reliever the past two seasons, had to wait until the 34th in 2011.

That year, 1,031 players were drafted ahead of Lugo. But only 29 of them have a higher Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. That puts Lugo in the top 3%.

Among other Mets-relevant late-round examples: They snagged Nolan Ryan in the 12th round in 1965, the first MLB Draft. Keith Hernandez joined the Cardinals in the 42nd round in 1971. Mike Piazza was the Dodgers’ 62nd-rounder in 1988.

Van Wagenen’s pitch to potential future Mets will include the organization’s player development work under Allard Baird and Jared Banner and, of course, the bright lights of the big city.

“New York is the biggest and best place in the world to play,” he said. “If we can give them a platform to be what they want to be and who they want to be, I hope we’ll be an attractive destination.”

One potential factor in a player’s decision: Which team did he grow up rooting for? Van Wagenen said the Mets won’t specifically target Long Islanders or other locals who might like the Mets.

Instead, they’ll try for the top players no matter the geography.

“If that is in our backyard, that is an incredible gift, because people who have grown up in the New York tri-state area have an understanding of what it means to be in a New York Mets uniform and the tradition that we have and the new era that we find ourselves in right now,” Van Wagenen said. “From a scouting standpoint, we’re focused on trying to paint [with] as broad of a brush as we can to get the best players we can.”

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