Several members of the New York Mets’ core could very well be playing their baseball elsewhere in 2022, though right fielder Michael Conforto’s future is near the top of the club’s most intriguing situations.
The 2014 first-round draft pick is the third-longest tenured Met, perceived to be a franchise lifer — something the organization hasn’t been able to boast much about in its 60 years of existence.
For the most part, Conforto was trending toward that direction over a four-year stretch from 2017-2020 that was setting himself up nicely for a handsome payday once his contract ran out at the end of the 2021 season.
In 467 games during that stretch, Conforto slashed .265/.369/.495 (.864 OPS) with 162-game averages of 34 home runs and 95 RBI. A shortened 2020 season offered even more promise when he posted a .927 OPS with nine home runs and 31 RBI in 54 games.
Then it all came crashing down this season.
Whether it was the pressure of playing for a new, big-time contract or trying to produce under the weight of great team expectations, Conforto had his most disappointing season as a pro — slashing .232/.344/.384 (.729 OPS) with 14 home runs and 55 RBI in 125 games.
It certainly hurts his value, as it would be somewhat of a shock to see him receive a $200 million-plus contract that he once was almost a lock to get from any team this winter.
But Conforto looks poised to test the waters of free agency as Michael Mayer of MMO reported on Thursday that “early indications” suggest that the 29-year-old will turn down the Mets’ qualifying offer of a one-year deal worth roughly $20 million.
The bet on himself is warranted given the previous four seasons, even if this year also featured an exit velocity that was considerably below the league average. There was also an abundance of turbulence within the Mets’ ranks throughout the season — most notably the uncertainty at the hitting-coach position after Chili Davis was fired in May.
Per FanGraphs, Conforto’s strikeout rate was the lowest ever in his career during a full season of play while his hard-hit percentage (39.1%) was the highest it’s been since 2017.
One down season isn’t going to see interest in him completely evaporate — especially if there is a belief that 2021 was just an anomaly and that proper coaching and guidance within an organization can get him right back on track.
A short “show-me” deal that spans two or three seasons would appear to be most sensible for both Conforto and the Mets, ensuring a big payday comes should a resurgence occur.
However, the Mets will have other options to at least explore this offseason, especially if Conforto’s contract demands exceed the perception of what is deserved given this past year.
The most notable option stands to be Nick Castellanos, who can opt-out of his deal with the Cincinnati Reds to hit free agency. The 30-year-old has put up superior numbers than Conforto since 2017, slashing .286/.339/.518 (.857 OPS) with 162-game averages of 30 home runs and 97 RBI. He is coming off his finest season yet in 2021, hitting .309 (.939 OPS) with 34 home runs and 100 RBI.