Exploring a possible Conforto extension

September 10th, 2020

NEW YORK -- Count among the brightest aspects of the Mets’ season. A steady-hitting outfielder for the last half-decade, Conforto has turned into something more this summer, leading the team in average (.340) and on-base percentage (.428) while serving as a clubhouse leader, a fan favorite and even a game-saving defensive star.

He’s also due to become a free agent after the 2021 season. Unsurprisingly, talk of an extension has swirled more frequently around Conforto, who has expressed interest in staying with the Mets long-term.

Whether that actually happens depends upon a multitude of factors, many of which are impossible to predict. But it’s worth an exploration:

How good is Conforto?

Maybe better than most people thought. From 2017-19, Conforto delivered three consecutive years of strong-but-not-quite-star-level production, hitting .257 with an .855 OPS while averaging 29 homers and 25 doubles per season. Although that’s a very good offensive profile, Conforto felt there was more in his game to unlock.

This year, by deliberately trading some pull power for a more comprehensive all-fields approach, Conforto has become the sort of lineup centerpiece many envisioned when the Mets selected him 10th overall in the 2014 MLB Draft. Conforto’s pull rate of 26.6 percent ranks fifth in the league and is the lowest of his career, down from 40.7 percent last season.

Conforto is also crushing left-handed pitching, hitting four of his eight homers vs. lefties en route to a .295/.394/.541 slash line. In short, he’s eliminated holes from his offensive game, developing a pure hitter’s profile to match one of baseball’s prettiest swings.

“I’m happy with where I’m at,” Conforto said. “Using the whole field and spraying the ball and putting the ball on a line, that’s definitely what I came into the season looking to do.”

Were this a 162-game season, Conforto would be on pace to amass 6.4 Wins Above Replacement, easily the highest total of his career. Only four National League position players exceeded that last year: Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Ketel Marte and Anthony Rendon, who also happened to be the top four 2019 NL MVP vote-getters.

Would Conforto sign a long-term deal?

It seems possible, despite agent Scott Boras’ decades-long history of taking players to free agency. Conforto has been consistent in saying he would be glad to discuss an extension, but team officials have never seriously approached him.

“Everyone always says that Scott is a big free-agency guy and he’s a big fan of that, but Scott … is obviously going to give me the best advice that he feels he has for me as a player and for my career,” Conforto said in February. “Ultimately, it’s my decision. I think it’s somewhat of a misconception about Scott and his clients. He wants what’s best for us. He’s going to give us his best advice. But at the end of the day, he’ll tell you, ‘It’s my client’s decision.’”

Generally speaking, there’s a bit less incentive these days for players to enter free agency. Even though the market rebounded last winter from a dry 2018-19 offseason, it remains unclear how teams will spend after a season with no fans in the stands. That could have a financial ripple effect for years to come. Even last year, 29-year-old Marcell Ozuna turned down a $17.8 million qualifying offer only to find tepid interest on the open market. He signed a one-year, $18 million deal with the Braves instead and will try again this offseason.

For Conforto, who grew up in the Mets organization, an extension would allow him to avoid such uncertainties. Of course, an extension would also prevent him from maximizing his career earnings with a big 2021 season heading into free agency.

Both paths have their merits, and their risks.

Would the Mets actually offer an extension?

That’s harder to predict given the team’s uncertain ownership situation. Even if the Wilpon family finalizes terms of a sale before October, the transition timeline could affect what the team does from November through February. It’s also impossible to say how the new control person would operate, or how quickly he or she might act.

Given all that, don’t expect the Mets to approach Conforto about an extension until at least late winter or early spring, which is when most conversations tend to happen anyway. Even though Conforto will need to sign an arbitration deal before then, he and the Mets could agree to rip it up at any time.

The Mets’ current owners have shied away from big extensions over the last decade, with two notable exceptions: David Wright and Jacob deGrom, who were generational homegrown talents. Conforto is moving closer to that type of status.

“This guy, he’s about as pro as it can get in every aspect of the game,” said Mets pitcher Rick Porcello, a 12-year veteran of three different teams. “I mean that. I’m not just saying it. He’s really impressive. He’s impressive as a ballplayer. But he’s even more impressive as a human being.”

What have similar players gotten?

Part of the problem in evaluating Conforto’s pay scale is that players like him don’t often reach the open market. Now 27 years old, Conforto has compiled 15.7 career fWAR.

Still, several outfielders around his age have signed over the past three years, providing a blueprint of what a Conforto deal could look like. Some comps:

Charlie Blackmon, Rockies: 6 years, $108 million, plus $8 million in incentives and opt-outs after Years 4 and 5

AAV: $18 million

Signed: Going into age-31 season

Career WAR at the time: 16.2

WAR in final season before signing: 6.6

Blackmon was a bit older than Conforto when he ripped up his final arbitration year to sign a long-term deal, but his career path was similar as a solid contributor who reached stardom in his late 20s. The comp is not perfect, given Blackmon’s age and center-field skill set. It’s still probably the best recent example the market has provided.

Justin Upton, Angels: 5 years, $106 million

AAV: $21.2 million

Signed: Going into age-30 season

Career WAR at the time: 33.9

WAR in final season before signing: 5.2

Because Upton broke into the Majors as a 19-year-old, he had a longer track record than Conforto upon signing his latest deal. Upton was effectively a free agent because of an opt-out in his previous contract, but he negotiated exclusively with the Angels after putting up a .901 OPS in 2017.

J.D. Martinez, Red Sox: 5 years, $110 million with an opt-out after Year 2

AAV: $22 million

Signed: Going into age-30 season

Career WAR at the time: 15.0

WAR in final season before signing: 3.8

As a 30-year-old free agent, Martinez profiled as one of baseball’s best hitters, offering more power potential than Conforto can. But he was mostly a designated hitter, whereas Conforto is an everyday outfielder. Balance those two factors, and Martinez becomes a decent comp for a Conforto deal.

Nick Castellanos, Reds: 4 years, $64 million with an opt-out after Year 1

AAV: $16 million

Signed: Going into age-28 season

Career WAR at the time: 10.5

WAR in final season before signing: 2.8

This is the low end of what Conforto could expect, and it’s admittedly a comparison that made more sense before his 2020 breakout. Entering this season, Conforto and Castellanos profiled as reasonably similar hitters, but the former has made strides that the latter has not.

So what would a Conforto extension actually look like?

Using conversations with multiple Major League executives and agents as a guideline, along with the above comparisons, it seems clear that Conforto could expect something in the neighborhood of a five-year deal on top of his remaining year of team control, likely with an opt-out clause at some point in the contract.

If the Mets project Conforto to make roughly $14-16 million through arbitration in 2021, they could tack on five years with an AAV between $20-22 million to reach a six-year, $115-125 million commitment. That would take Conforto through his age-33 season, giving him the freedom to pursue another contract later in his career.

Would Conforto accept such a deal? Or would he wait a year to test the open market, trying to parlay two strong seasons into an even longer contract pushing $150 million or more?

No matter what happens, the next six months could have a profound impact on the player, the franchise and their future relationship.

“I have the awareness that there is that uncertainty … of where I’m going to end up,” Conforto said in February. “I would love to stay here. This is all I know. So we’ll see what happens two years down the road, but right now, this year feels like a special one. So let’s focus on that for now.”