SAN DIEGO — Even when the Mets were negotiating with Jacob deGromthey were enamored with Justin Verlander.
Sure, deGrom was their homegrown ace, but Verlander seemed to fit so much better. He required a shorter-term deal. He was a fan of cutting-edge analytics and technology. He connected personally with the owner Steve Cohen in a way that deGrom never seemed willing to do.
Over the past few weeks, the Mets weighed the relative health risk of the two veterans. What was scarier, the 34-year-old who had barely pitched in two years, or the 39-year-old who just won the American League Cy Young Award, but was, you know, 39 years old? On that question, the team concluded it was basically a coin flip. The next few years would tell that tale.
On Friday, deGrom made the decision for them, bolting for a five-year, $185 million deal with the Texas Rangers that has been widely panned in the industry. The Mets, although they were pursuing deGrom, were also somewhat relieved that his departure freed them up to pursue a player who they thought might actually want to play for them.
A few minutes after Cohen learned that deGrom was leaving, I reached him on the phone. His tone matched his quote — “I wish him well. He has the right to choose his team. Now this team has to move on to the next thing.” The ambitious owner was disappointed but at peace, and already looking towards the near future.
That focus, according to sources, immediately became Verlander, although the Mets talked over the weekend to an agent Scott Boras about his client Carlos Rodon. To fill that top-of-the-rotation vacancy, they preferred a shorter term deal than the four-to-six year deal Rodon is expected to command.
Throughout the past few days, league sources expressed skepticism that Verlander would choose the Mets. A year ago, Verlander told the Yankees that he was interested in signing with them, leading the team to make a one-year, $25 million offer.
When Verlander shopped that offer back to the Houston Astros and re-signed there, the Yankees concluded that he did not want to pitch in New York. Rival agents and teams believed last weekend that Verlander would ultimately land with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Mets were aware of that, but were cautiously optimistic that Verlander was not using them to leverage a better deal elsewhere. On Saturday, Verlander did his own “due diligence” on the Mets organization, in the words of one person familiar with the process. That left the Mets feeling optimistic that his interest in them was sincere.
By Sunday, the Yankees and Astros, who had engaged with Verlander’s camp through the process, were essentially out. Only the Mets and Dodgers were seen as willing to pay him more than $40 million for two years, in addition to some form of a vesting option for a third year.
Sunday night, former MLB player Carlos “Bye Bye” Baerga said in an Instagram post that the sides were close to a deal. At that stage, the Mets were hoping Baerga’s report would prove correct, but they had not heard from Verlander. The sides went to bed without agreeing to terms.
On Monday morning, as the Winter Meetings began in earnest, the Mets were still waiting to hear. Soon, they knew, they would either close a deal with Verlander or be told that it would never happen.
At approximately 9:19 am PT, the team received word: They had a deal with Verlander, pending the successful completion of a physical examination. It would pay $86.7 million over two years, with a vesting option for a third year.
Elated, the Mets now had two future Hall-of-Famers atop their rotation, and the best possible replacement for deGrom — perhaps even a better option than deGrom himself.