deGrom a Mets lifer? He likes the idea

February 19th, 2021

NEW YORK -- One of the most impactful relationships that fostered over his first seven seasons was with David Wright, a likeminded competitor who not only befriended deGrom, but mentored him. Ask Wright, and he’ll call deGrom the most competitive person he has ever met. Ask deGrom, and he’ll say something similar.

In the waning months of Wright’s career, deGrom took note of how the Mets’ fan base treated the longtime captain, thanking him for spending his entire career with the Mets. In the eyes of many, that fact alone elevated Wright to a different plane. He was with them. He was one of them.

deGrom now has a chance to enter that same air: to stick with the Mets for the rest of his career. To have his jersey retired at Citi Field and enter the Mets Hall of Fame, as Wright is likely to do in the coming years. Perhaps even to enter Cooperstown with a Mets cap on his plaque.

For deGrom, who is widely considered the second-best pitcher in team history after Tom Seaver, only one stumbling block remains. His contract contains an opt-out clause after the 2022 season that, if exercised, could prematurely end his time in New York. It’s far too soon to know how deGrom will handle that situation, with two full seasons of baseball still ahead of him. But it’s a decision he understands will affect his legacy in rather Wright-like ways.

“That definitely had an impact on me -- seeing how well he was treated by Mets fans and being a Met for life,” deGrom said Friday, after reporting to camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “Being there for the last time he took the field, that was really cool. So that definitely weighs on your mind, but that’s a decision that will be made when the time comes.”

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For now, deGrom is focused on reclaiming his spot as the best pitcher in the National League after finishing third in Cy Young Award voting last season. Two minor muscle tweaks prevented deGrom from making all his starts, but he still finished with a 2.38 ERA and a league-leading 104 strikeouts in 68 innings. Physically, the 32-year-old says he feels better now than in his 20s, largely due to a series of mechanical changes he has made. The numbers back that up; deGrom threw harder last year than ever before, and he has increased his strikeout rate for four seasons running.

Had the Mets played 162 games instead of 60, deGrom might have pulled away from the Cy Young pack as he did down the stretch in 2018 and ’19. Without that opportunity, he has refocused on 2021, with the goal of winning three Cy Youngs in four years.

“He just finds a way to get stronger, get better,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said.

As deGrom’s role has evolved, Rojas added, so too has his aptitude for leadership. Quiet by nature, deGrom has become the person younger teammates look to for support and advice. When trade acquisition Joey Lucchesi arrived at camp this week, deGrom surprised him by being the first to introduce himself -- the best pitcher in baseball going out of his way to greet a newcomer. Although deGrom will never be the vocal sort of leader that, say, Pete Alonso aims to become, he offers the Mets -- like Wright did -- a quiet source of confidence.

The question is for how much longer. Two years ago, deGrom signed a five-year, $137.5 million extension that runs through the 2024 season. Had he held out for free agency, deGrom admits he likely would have made more money, as evidenced by the greater average annual value that Trevor Bauer just received from the Dodgers. deGrom wasn’t particularly tempted to test free agency back then, and his attitude isn’t likely to change a great deal after 2022, when he can opt out of his current deal.

Still, economics are what they are. If there is significantly more money to be had, deGrom’s agents will likely push him to renegotiate. Only after he makes that choice will his status as a Met for life become clear.

“The goal is to go out there and perform and then when that time comes, make that decision,” deGrom said. “But one thing I do think is really, really, really cool is whenever somebody spends their entire career with one team. You don’t see it happen a whole lot anymore. So it’s definitely something that I’ve thought about, and we just have to see when that time comes.”

As for the physical part, there is no evidence that deGrom is even remotely in decline as he approaches age 33. Because he underwent Tommy John surgery as a prospect and took extra time to climb the Minor League ladder, he didn’t debut until he was 26. As such, deGrom has thrown only 1,169 2/3 big league innings -- less than half the total of 32-year-old Clayton Kershaw or 36-year-old Max Scherzer, two other generational type pitchers. What that means for deGrom’s longevity is difficult to say, but it certainly cannot hurt.

“I feel good,” deGrom said. “So I think I can compete at this level for quite a bit longer.”

In a text message, deGrom joked that, like NFL star Tom Brady, he can remain elite well into his 40s. The reality is often crueler for Major League pitchers, who make their living by throwing baseballs at unnatural speeds. deGrom understands that, as do the Mets.

They also know he’s not the sort to bet against.