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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets need to capitalize on Jacob deGrom's 'window' as the best pitcher in baseball

Jacob deGrom at Mets spring training in Port

Jacob deGrom at Mets spring training in Port St. Lucie, Florida, on Feb. 19, 2021. Credit: New York Mets

There will come a day when Jacob deGrom doesn’t pitch for the Mets anymore. Or maybe even a time that he still calls Flushing home yet no longer is widely considered the top ace in the sport.

From what we know about deGrom, his contract status and a Benjamin Button ability to get stronger as he grows older, those grim scenarios are years away. But he’ll be 33 in June, the clock is ticking and this "deGrom window" — the period in which the back-to-back Cy Young Award winner is at the height of his powers — already is sliding closer to shut in very small, gradual increments.

No one can predict exactly how much time the Mets have left. DeGrom can opt out after the 2022 season — Year 4 of his five-year, $137.5 million contract — and based on his current trajectory, that figures to be a lock if the Mets allow him to get that far.

For this deal, then-general manager Brodie Van Wagenen — deGrom’s former agent — kept him from free agency when he was coming off his first Cy Young Award. Then deGrom made Van Wagenen and the Wilpons look brilliant by immediately winning his second.

Now under Steve Cohen’s ownership and the return of Sandy Alderson as president, the Mets need to ask themselves if they’re doing everything possible to capitalize on that good fortune. The Patriots didn’t squander Tom Brady’s below-market salaries, and these Mets — backed up by Cohen’s billions — need to realize that deGrom isn’t going to be around forever.

When deGrom again considers his future in Flushing, he’s going to remember the Mets’ willingness to give Trevor Bauer a $40 million salary this winter — nearly $13 million more than deGrom’s average annual value — to be the team’s No. 2 starter.

"He waited until free agency," deGrom said of Bauer on Friday. "And that’s what happens. I signed a deal before free agency. So that would be a discussion to have with my agency. But I’m happy to be here. I signed the deal and really haven’t looked back."

DeGrom is more concerned about what’s next. Bauer ditched the Mets to sign a three-year, $102 million deal with the defending champion Dodgers, who are spending more like a mid-size nation these days than a big-market baseball team.

Cohen, the single richest owner in the game, is easing into the role a little more slowly than the West Coast kingpins. If deGrom continues to stay in the Cy Young conversation after narrowly losing the three-peat chance to Bauer last season, I don’t doubt Cohen eventually will make it worth his while to stay in Flushing. A big part of that sales pitch, however, certainly is going to involve the Mets’ level of success leading up to deGrom’s next contract decision.

As far as 2021 is concerned, the Mets seem to have done enough for a serious playoff push. With Friday’s addition of Taijuan Walker on a two-year deal reportedly worth $20 million, Cohen has invested roughly $90 million this winter just for the 2021 season, bringing the payroll (by luxury-tax accounting purposes) to more than $197 million.

The Mets have addressed most of their weaknesses, but other than the sneaky blockbuster trade for Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco, they didn’t go all-out in pursuit of the elite free agents, as many assumed Cohen would do after the sale was completed in early November. They signed James McCann early rather than wait for J.T. Realmuto, got outbid by the Blue Jays for George Springer and were leveraged by Bauer in his efforts to go home to Los Angeles.

That doesn’t necessarily means the Mets are done yet, even with spring training already underway in Port St. Lucie. And there is more work to do if they plan on improving their World Series odds with deGrom at the front of this rotation for at least the next two seasons.

Lindor and Michael Conforto are the top two priorities heading into their walk years, with Noah Syndergaard likely next in line as he eyes a June return from Tommy John surgery.

For now, deGrom sounds satisfied with what he’s seen from the new ownership and front office. But the only real playoff run he’s been on in seven years was the trip to the World Series in 2015 (we’re not counting the 2016 wild-card play-in loss), and deGrom has got to be starving for that stage again.

"You never know how long you get to play this game, and every time I’m able to put this uniform on, I’m thankful for that," deGrom said. "I wouldn’t say the window is closing. I’d hope not. Definitely like the direction our team is going in. Definitely want to win a World Series here in the next couple years."

When he first took control of the Mets in November, Cohen’s initial timetable was three to five years. Considering deGrom’s window, it may need to happen quicker than that.

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