PORT ST. LUCIE — The timing couldn’t have looked worse for the Mets. On the same day that Noah Syndergaard pledged his loyalty to them, saying he declined to pitch in the WBC to focus on trying to win a World Series, the team renewed his contract over a difference of $ 9,000.
They’re paying him $ 605,500 this year, which is more than the $ 535,000 minimum salary the Mets are required to pay him in a system that allows teams to control salaries until players are arbitration eligible after their second or third full season.
But Syndergaard was asking for $ 614,500, according to a source, and the Mets said no, prompting their star pitcher to elect not to sign his contract in what amounts to a symbolic protest.
An extra $ 9,000 is practically spare change in the baseball world, and it seems like an especially small amount to make Syndergaard happy, yet as GM Sandy Alderson explains it, he didn’t want to make an exception to the Mets’ own system that determines controllable salaries.
“We have a system that tries to be as objective and fair as possible to all the players,” he said Saturday.
Alderson said the Mets had 20 other pre-arbitration players aside from Syndergaard who agreed to contracts for this season. He noted that Jacob deGrom similarly declined to sign his contract last year.
“The system seems to be working pretty well,” Alderson said. “We can’t have a system that applies to everybody but two.”
The GM said the system accounts for performance, which is why Syndergaard is being paid above the minimum, and paid more than others with similar service time.
“There is a star system but it’s a system,” he said.
His argument against giving Syndergaard a relatively small amount to get him to sign is that it opens the door for other pre-arbitration eligible players to negotiate “discretionary” amounts beyond what the system deems fair. Essentially that would make for time-consuming negotiation that Alderson doesn’t see as necessary.
OK, but it’s also his prerogative to make exceptions for players like Syndergaard — or deGrom a year ago, for that matter — after each had seasons that put them in elite company among starting pitchers.
Not that Syndergaard’s WBC decision should have factored in, but it did add a layer of drama on Friday, after he said, “I’m a Met. Ain’t nobody made it to the Hall of Fame or win a World Series playing in the WBC.”
Still, Alderson said he discussed the situation with Syndergaard and felt there was a mutual understanding.
“He’s not upset,” Alderson said.
Syndergaard wasn’t thrilled, either, or he would have signed the contract. But he clearly didn’t want to make an issue of it publicly when asked about it Saturday.
“I did not sign my contract, I don’t agree with it,” he said. “Other than that, I don’t discuss my contract with the media.”
When asked if he was upset, Syndergaard said, “I’m just kind of indifferent toward it right now.”
He said he hadn’t discussed the situation with deGrom, although both players are represented by Brodie van Wagenen.
Syndergaard did offer a hint of defiance, indicating that he wouldn’t be affected by any disappointment on the business side.
“I know what I’m capable of,” he said. “I’ll continue to focus on getting better every day.”
He’ll get his money, of course, if he continues to pitch at an elite level. After a solid — but not great — season cut short by injury, deGrom negotiated a contract worth $ 4.05 million with the Mets for 2017, his first year eligible for arbitration.
Teams always run at least some risk of alienating a star player by renewing their contract, but when players get their leverage they push for every last dollar anyway, and if the money is there, it’s rare when a player holds such a grudge that he won’t sign long-term.
So far Alderson has shown no inclination to lock up any of his starting pitchers long-term, and Syndergaard has five more seasons before he’s eligible for free agency.
So perhaps there will be an arbitration battle or two along the way, but he isn’t going anywhere.
Even so, $ 9,000 doesn’t seem like much to keep the peace with a player of Syndergaard’s importance, one who is fast becoming ultra-popular with the fans.
System or no system.
THE NEXT ZOBRIST
By now you’ve heard and read all about the likes of Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, and the other highly-touted prospects in Yankee camp.
One under-the-radar guy the Yankee brass loves, however, is shortstop Tyler Wade. He’s not on any of the Top Prospect lists but the Yankees think he could be their version of Ben Zobrist, with versatility they feel is the wave of the future.
“The game today is more and more about youth and athleticism,” Yankees’ VP Tim Naehring told me last week. “Because of analytics, because of how guys are positioned on the field, you need good athletes because you’re grabbing a third baseman and putting him at second in a shift.
“A guy like Wade, he could probably play shortstop for as long as his career goes, but you see a Zobrist — he was part of two championship teams, and you see how beneficial it is for an above-average player to be able to play multiple positions.
“Wade’s got the ability to be a Zobrist-type. He’s dynamic on the bases, he can play in the middle of the diamond, and he can play in the outfield. I was amazed to see him in the Instructional League, it looked like he’d played outfield forever. He was taking good routes and he has plus-speed.
“In the old days when a team moved you around, you were labeled a utility type guy. That’s not what is going on in today’s game. Wade is an average or above-average player who can play multiple positions. That gives you tremendous flexibility.”
Wade, 22, was a fourth-round draft choice out of high school in 2013. He doesn’t wow you with his numbers, hitting .259 with a .701 OPS in Double-A last season, but the Yankees love his smarts and think he’ll continue to improve.
Whether he finds a place in the infield when the Yankees have Didi Gregorius at shortstop, with Torres and Jorge Mateo on the way, remains to be seen.
Or as Brian Cashman told me last week, speaking of his plethora of shortstops: “Right now Mateo will either be in Tampa or Trenton. Torres will definitely be in Trenton. And Tyler Wade says, ‘(bleep) all you guys, I’m going to prove to you that I’m better,’ so we’ll see what happens.”
Some impressions from 10 days at Yankee camp:
– Who knows if Aaron Judge will cut down on his strikeouts enough to make it in the big leagues, but watching him take batting practice is an astonishing experience. You saw the home run he hit off the top of the scoreboard in a game? He hits shots like that by the dozen, and to all fields.
“Hits them as far as (Mark) McGwire did,” a scout said while watching Judge in the cage last week.
– The more that Yankee people see of Torres, the more they seem to love him. He’s not as athletic as Gregorius or Mateo, but he has a feel for both hitting and fielding that seems to set him apart.
Naehring says it’s an instinctive quality that, for the most part, can’t be taught.
“It’s his ability to slow the game down,” Naehring said. “Can you help guys do that? Yes, by positioning them, teaching them how to anticipate plays. But individuals like Torres and Greg Bird, those guys have a very special heartbeat. You can see the special ones that have zero panic in the game. It’s fun to watch.”
– Ran into a scout while in Tampa who thinks James Kaprielian will be an ace-level starter for the Yankees.
“I saw him here in the Florida State League last year before he hurt his elbow, and I was blown away by how advanced he was,” the scout said. “He had one of the best sliders I’d ever seen, and he commanded his fastball too. I thought he’d be in the big leagues by the end of the season.”
Kaprielian made only three starts in Class A Tampa before injuring his elbow and missing the rest of the season. He came back to pitch well in the Arizona Fall League, but because of that potential the scout talked about, the Yankees are being ultra-cautious with him this spring, limiting him to simulation games for now.