FA to-be Conforto focused on stretch run

September 14th, 2021

NEW YORK -- Michael Conforto does not know if these will wind up being his final weeks in New York. He concedes that possibility. He also acknowledges the alternative.

“I definitely have thought about it,” said Conforto, who can become a free agent for the first time after this season. “The options are wide open. It very well could not be the end of my time here. It may be, but it very well couldn’t be.”

Conforto has at least positioned himself for a strong vault into the open market, entering play Tuesday with a .304/.396/.457 slash line and two home runs in his last 12 games. It’s part of a larger renaissance that has seen Conforto hit .280/.380/.475 since Aug. 6, after bottoming out at a .199/.326/.326 slash line at that time. The hot stretch is far more like what Conforto achieved over his first six seasons in New York, when he established himself as an All-Star-caliber hitter and middle-of-the-order threat.

The question is how much -- if at all -- teams will devalue Conforto in free agency because of his early-season slump.

“I’m just trying to build upon the things that I’ve done the last couple months,” Conforto said. “At the end of the season, I think we can reflect on whether or not that sample size is big enough. But right now, I’m just trying to put together quality at-bats to help the team win. Because we need wins right now. So that’s where I’m focused -- not necessarily on what’s going to happen in the offseason. I believe I’m just getting started in my career.”

Given Conforto’s track record, the Mets are primed to extend him a one-year qualifying offer in the neighborhood of $20 million no matter how he finishes this season. In recent weeks, multiple industry sources cautioned that Conforto would be unlikely to accept such an offer, given the prospect of a much bigger payday in free agency. Asked specifically about the qualifying offer Tuesday, Conforto deferred his thoughts to a later date.

Even if Conforto does reach free agency, however, he is far from a guarantee to sign elsewhere. The Mets will enter the offseason with only two natural outfielders -- Brandon Nimmo and prospect Khalil Lee -- on their 40-man roster. (A third, Kevin Pillar, could return on a contract option, while natural infielders Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith will also remain under team control.) No matter what, the Mets will need to invest in outfield help, meaning they are likely to maintain interest in their homegrown former first-round pick.

“I will say that I grew up here, and I learned a lot here,” Conforto said. “My professional career was here. I’m just focused on finishing this season strong with my teammates -- hopefully not in early October. We want to make that postseason push.”

If these are Conforto’s final weeks in New York, he is at least using them to do a bit of good in his adopted home. On Tuesday, Conforto hosted a group of pediatric cancer patients through his “Conforto Cares” program, which has been active since 2017 but limited mostly to Zoom calls during the pandemic. The program is close to the heart of Conforto, whose mother lost a younger sister to pediatric cancer as a child.

“It’s just a special day for me and for these families just to get away from the tough times that they’re having right now, and just enjoy some time at the ballpark and put smiles on their faces and have some fun,” Conforto said. “It’s special for me and special for them.”

deGrom progresses; Syndergaard, too

Jacob deGrom took a significant step forward in his return from right elbow inflammation Tuesday, throwing off the slope of a mound for the first time since July. The two-time Cy Young Award winner threw 10 pitches in what one onlooker described as a “light” session, as the Mets continued his slow progression.

That sequence will continue with another light bullpen session later this week, followed presumably by more intensive bullpen sessions, live batting practice, and potentially Minor League rehab games. With less than three weeks left in the regular season, that leaves essentially no room for a setback in deGrom’s progression. But deGrom remains committed in his push to return, even if it’s in a limited capacity. And team officials are onboard with the plan.

As for Noah Syndergaard, the right-hander is scheduled to face hitters, including Nimmo, during a live BP session Wednesday. If all goes well, Syndergaard will return to a rehab assignment this weekend, in advance of rejoining the Mets as soon as their upcoming road trip through Boston and Milwaukee.