The Mets’ highly-touted first basemen gets the Opening Day nod, a surprising outcome when service time manipulation was expected. Does his day one status tell us anything about the 2019 Mets? Or Alonso’s future?
The Mets promised to bring their best 25 to Washington, which meant sacrificing a year of team control over their best prospect, first baseman Pete Alonso. Alonso earned his spot: he finished Spring Training slashing .352/.620/1.006, with 10 extra-base hits, four of which were home runs. A power bat, the slugging, OPS and extra-base hits numbers are all tantalizing. He wasn’t just one of the 25 best this spring; Alonso was well above the cut line.
Still, there was no guarantee he would be on the Mets Major League roster for Opening Day in D.C. By adding Alonso on day one, the Mets will forfeit access to a loophole in current service time rules that would grant them an extra season of team control over Alonso, extending his pre-free agency to post-year seven rather than year six.
The why behind the Mets’ decision to call up Alonso early is difficult to determine. We could take the Mets at face value: new GM Brodie Van Wagenen said the best Mets would be playing for the big-league squad from day one; as such, Alonso is evidence to support the claim. Many see it as a gesture of both goodwill and a signal of competitive intent for 2019. That is, the Mets are showing their fans they aren’t prioritizing service time manipulation over winning: in a stacked and packed NL East, the two weeks reserved for dropping service time under the full-year threshold could break a season. A similar logic has been peddled in San Diego, where elite-prospect and current king of the juniors Fernando Tatis Jr. surprisingly made a Padres roster that suddenly sees itself as an NL West/NL postseason contender. The goal is to win. Now.
Then, there are some skeptical takes. One is that Van Wagenen (and maybe Padres’ GM A.J. Preller?) doesn’t particularly care for a problem six years down the road. What would have to go right for him even to be around to deal with that? That, of course, is pure speculation pulled from the sports talk/hott taek playbook.
The other is that Alonso doesn’t fit the mold of some notable service time casualties in recent years, like the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, The Braves’ Ronald Acuña or the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. One important distinction: Alonso is already 24 and given what we’ve seen recently in contract negotiations for most 30+ players that aren’t the absolute cream of the crop, whether he hits free agency post-six or post-seven years may not make a massive financial difference for him. He may still be affordable simply because his options are limited. This conspiracy theory suggests calling up Alonso early has a lower risk than the spreadsheet says.
There’s also a chance that the Mets don’t intend to let Alonso hit free agency anyway. We’ve recently seen what feels like an uptick in players signing extensions before TC+Arb years are exhausted. The general rule there is that pre-free agency players can see extensions sooner, guaranteeing a contract that wipes out service time issues at the cost of total dollar value. Eloy Jimenez, who couldn’t make it to Chicago in September, just guaranteed his Opening Day spot by signing a six-year, $43 million contract. The concept is sold as security, and it does remove some of the volatility that comes with year-to-year negotiations, but it’s generally a good deal for teams, who have dangled this carrot in (probably) bad faith ways before. Houston’s George Springer is a famous example, who was offered a seven-year, $23 million deal before camp broke in 2014, declined it for its low value, and was sent down to the minors after that.
The Mets might be rearranging the steps, but they could arrive at a similar point over the next six years (minus the “take it or leave it” shenanigans Springer faced). If Alonso can rake and stay fit, stabilizing a position on the field and in the order that has been rickety since Carlos Delgado (no offense, Lucas Duda), I suspect the Mets will try to extend him early. On the surface, an early extension could be mutually beneficial: the Mets save money, and Alonso won’t have to deal with the crisis that comes with suddenly being “old” at 30. Now, there’s a lot wrong that a low-leverage deal could be looked at as a mutually beneficial compromise—I’ll save that for a future rant. But if that’s how this plays out, year seven is even more irrelevant.
And to be fair, year seven is extra irrelevant on Opening Day 2019. It’s only Pete Alonso’s first day on the job.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.