Jeff Wilpon and Brodie Van Wagenen cited financial and playing-time commitments to Yoenis Cespedes, who is expected to miss at least half and perhaps all of the 2019 season, and the presence of the Mets’ other outfielders as reasons not to pursue star free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
“I don’t know how many teams have two $30-million players,” said Wilpon, the chief operating officer of a team with one player who makes almost that much money. “I think that’s a bit of the answer. We went into this offseason, Brodie knows exactly where the target is for the payroll, still has some room in there to do some things, so we’ll see where that brings us.”
The Nationals remain a possible landing spot for Harper and offered him a reported 10-year, $300-million deal in October to stay with them. They will pay Stephen Strasburg $38.8 million and Max Scherzer $37.4 million in 2019. (Based on average annual value, the players combine for $53.7 million, with neither reaching the $30-million mark.)
The Mets’ Opening Day payroll in 2018 was $150 million, according to Cot’s Contracts. For 2019, they are at about $158 million, though that doesn’t include David Wright’s restructured deal and insurance payments for Wright and Cespedes. For luxury-tax purposes, the Mets have about $40 million of wiggle room.
Said general manager Van Wagenen, “Cespedes has the highest [average annual value] of any outfielder in the game, and he was rewarded with that contract for a reason. We believe in him, we believe he can make a high impact and we hope that he will in the coming season and beyond.”
Those comments came Thursday at Citi Field, less than three weeks before spring training. Harper and Machado remain available in an open market that seemingly is lukewarm at best. At the start of the offseason, both were expected to receive contracts for about $30 million annually for about 10 years.
Cespedes, who had surgery on his heels last year, is due to make $29 million in 2019 — year three of his four-year deal with an average annual value of $27.5 million — but the Mets will get some of that money back via an insurance policy.
“We do have a $29-million outfielder on the roster that we hope to come back sometime this year and be productive,” Wilpon said.
The Mets have been flip-flopping on expectations for Cespedes. At the end of last season, Wilpon said the club has to prepare for 2019 as if Cespedes won’t play at all. In December, Van Wagenen called a healthy Cespedes “the ultimate trade deadline piece.” Last month, special assistant to the general manager Omar Minaya said anything Cespedes offers is “gravy.”
Now Cespedes is a reason for the Mets not to pursue Harper specifically.
Van Wagenen declined to say where Cespedes is in his rehabilitation. “With spring training around the corner, we’ll have a better understanding of that specific activity when we get there,” he said.
Excluding Cespedes, the Mets have several other outfielders, but none is a clear-cut starter alongside Michael Conforto and Brandon Nimmo, who are penciled into the corner spots and, like Harper, are lefthanded hitters.
“I go back and listen to what Brodie and the baseball staff have said and we have some pretty good lefty outfielders,” Wilpon said.
Juan Lagares (strong defensively but subpar offensively), Keon Broxton (strong defensively but subpar offensively) and converting infielder Jeff McNeil also will compete for playing time in the outfield.
Harper, 26, is six months younger than McNeil and five months older than Conforto and Nimmo.
“Those are six players that can impact us on a nightly basis,” said Van Wagenen, who included Cespedes in that group. “We feel like we’re very comfortable with that mix.”
So don’t expect the Mets to swoop in late for Harper and Machado despite apparent minimal interest around the league. The Mets did think about it, though, they say.
“We talked about every player that was available both in terms of free agents and trade scenarios early in this offseason and often throughout the offseason,” Van Wagenen said. “When we looked at our roster and we tried to build our plan, we recognized we had multiple needs that needed to be addressed — not just one area that needed to be addressed.
“The goal from the beginning was trying to address all of our needs in the most efficient way that we could.”