Michael Conforto has chance at biggest payday among Mets free agents: Sherman

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Michael Conforto was back hitting third Wednesday night, and the Mets scored one more run against the Braves (seven) than they had in their previous four games and more than in any game in two weeks.

That owed much to ineffective Atlanta starter Kyle Wright. But the Mets are more right when their most accomplished lefty bat is in a prime slot. He returned, with two hits and a walk, to a team that, despite leading the NL East, is still averaging the majors’ second-fewest runs per game.

So the ideal marriage for this player and club is that Conforto hit like he did while starring in the abbreviated 2020 season for the roughly half a schedule that remains in 2021, pushing the Mets to a division title and himself to free-agent riches.

As Conforto said, “I won’t lie that I don’t think about those things, but it kind of goes with what I was saying about the rehab [from a hamstring injury that cost him five weeks]: The only productive way to go is forward. To linger on the injury doesn’t help me, so I’m just going to keep moving forward and stick to the mentality of helping the team win, and at the end of the year we’ll see where we’re at, but I’ll be happy if we are playing in October and making a deep push and hopefully winning the World Series.”

Conforto is not the only Met who individually has much at stake with free agency approaching. But with the Mets having taken care of Francisco Lindor via a 10-year, $341 million pact before the shortstop’s walk year, Conforto projects to the largest payday available of the Mets’ free-agents-to-be.

Think of George Springer’s six-year, $150 million deal last offseason with Toronto as a benchmark. Springer had slightly better stats from 2017-20 than Conforto, plus he had the ability to play center field and is historically an elite postseason performer. Conforto, though, will be free following his age-28 season; Springer was age-30. I’m not sure the Yanks want to play in this arena, but his lefty bat would be more valuable to them in left field than the Mets in right field in 2022.

The next best walk-year lefty outfield bat belongs to Kyle Schwarber. The other best outfielders — Mark Canha and Starling Marte — both will play at 33 next year, but they have center-field skills. If you pooh-pooh Canha, know that of the 80 players who have batted at least 1,000 times since 2019, the Oakland righty’s 140 OPS-plus was fifth in the majors.

Despite a slow start followed not long after by the hamstring injury, Conforto still has enough time to fortify his free-agent case. As for the other key walk-year Mets:

Marcus Stroman

He and San Francisco’s Kevin Gausman were the only players to accept the $18.9 million qualifying offer last offseason. Both essentially gambled on themselves rather than trying to grind out a satisfactory long-term deal in a tight market. They are winning that bet.

Gausman actually leads the majors in Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement. He, like Stroman, is doing this in his age-30 season. That he is doing this with more strikeout power is setting Gausman apart from Stroman in a market that otherwise will be populated at the top by older stars: Think Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, plus Johnny Cueto, Lance Lynn and Charlie Morton.

Stroman is dealing with a hip issue that might not cost him any starts. Dallas Keuchel, an athletic lefty ground-ball machine, signed a three-year, $55.5 million pact following his age-31 campaign. I would think Stroman — an athletic, righty ground-ball machine — will shoot for no less than four years at the same average, so about $74 million total — though I would suspect the goal will be five years at $100 million-plus, especially if Stroman’s second half looks like his strong first.

Noah Syndergaard

Not pitching the past two seasons and being good but not great in 2019 hurts. He had Tommy John surgery then had his rehab stopped with elbow inflammation. Can he come back for, say, the final 4-5 weeks and playoffs (be optimistic, Mets fans) to convince the organization to make him the qualifying offer? Syndergaard, who would pitch at 29 in 2022, could try to re-establish himself for a bigger payday, a la Stroman.

Drew Smyly, with more age and less track record than Syndergaard, made five strong late-season starts for the Giants last year and seduced Atlanta to give him a one-year, $11 million pact. It feels like a late-arriving but effective Syndergaard could beat that.

Kevin Pillar/Jonathan Villar

Pillar has a $2.9 million 2022 player option and could take that to avoid being caught in a slow-moving market again. Pillar lacks above-average stats, but his toughness has helped the Mets’ culture, and he has shown he can still handle center field as a righty-hitting fourth outfielder.

Villar’s been energetic, a timely hitter and handled third capably when the Mets had few other alternatives. A second half of more of the same from the switch hitter should set him as a desirable piece in free agency at a time when clubs yearn for versatile depth more than ever.

Dellin Betances/Jeurys Familia/Aaron Loup

A group of veteran lefty relievers signed modest deals ($3 million or less per year) in the offseason. The best, so far, has been the Cubs’ with Andrew Chafin. The second is Loup’s $3 million pact with the Mets. Familia is on the IL now, but his good stuff/bad control combo likely means — short of genius the rest of the year — he will complete his three-year, $30 million pact and enter the one-year-at-a-time phase of his career.

Can Betances even get there? After his 2014-18 dominance, Betances has appeared in just 17 games with a 7.43 ERA the past three seasons. Can he get back healthy and do enough to even interest teams to take a risk this offseason?

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