Michael Conforto did not get too hot in 2021. Nor did he get too cold (not for too long, at least).
Unlike Goldilocks and her breaking and entering into the three bears’ home, however, that in-between sensation does not qualify as “just right” when it comes to the outfielder’s chances of sticking around in a Mets uniform beyond this season.
Really, it’s hard to see a non-injury scenario besides the actual one that would lead to a lower likelihood of his sticking with the club that drafted and developed him.
The 28-year-old didn’t start for the Mets on Wednesday night against the Red Sox and southpaw ace Chris Sale at Fenway Park, even as his fellow lefty swingers Jeff McNeil and Brandon Nimmo did. Said manager Luis Rojas: “Michael, we didn’t think it was a good matchup tonight for him.”
The outfielder has cooled off after a hot August, his best 2021 month. Yet that August, as well as Conforto’s underlying metrics and some health and injury issues — combined with the realities of this upcoming market — might very well convince prospective suitors that he is not a falling stock, despite falling production. And the Mets, hoping to import someone to run their baseball operations, might very well not prioritize the retention of Sandy Alderson’s most successful Mets first-round draft pick so far.
Consider two other scenarios that could have emerged in Conforto’s walk year:
Best case: Conforto puts together a fifth consecutive season of stellar offensive production, qualifying for his second All-Star Game and galvanizing Mets fans to rally for his retention. Steve Cohen gladly gives Conforto the “Springer deal,” matching the six-year, $150-million package that the Blue Jays gave to George Springer in outbidding the Mets.
Worst case: Conforto rode this track for a while, and it still can’t be ruled out altogether. However, had Conforto not registered his pickup August (.268/.388/.488 slash line), then he’d surely feel more compelled to consider accepting the qualifying offer the Mets intend to offer him and try to rebuild his market in 2022, just as Marcus Stroman did this year.
If teams were hesitant to commit long-term to Stroman after he opted out last year, though, they’ve seen Conforto this full season. And they’ve seen some good through the overall lousy .223/.339/.367 slash line that he held on the bench Wednesday as well as some reasons explaining the significant drop-off.
Remember that Conforto dealt with COVID-19 prior to spring training, then he missed more than a month with a right hamstring injury after serving as a picture of durability from 2018-20. Then go to Baseball Savant to notice his numbers, though still down, look better through the “expected” prism, based on exit velocity and launch angle. Conforto’s 2021 downfall appears rather obvious: He has become too pull-happy, an issue you’d think could be fixed.
“We all know Conforto driving the ball the other way with power, it just hasn’t been there this year,” Rojas said. “I think he has one homer [zero, according to Baseball-Reference.com] to the opposite side. That has a lot to do with the lower half, I think. Michael just hasn’t been consistent with his mechanics, with his approach this year.”
Throw in the realities of the market: Many teams appear poised to spend, and the free-agent outfield market is weak, with Nick Castellanos (likely to opt out), Conforto and Starling Marte sharing the top tier alongside versatile guys Kris Bryant and Chris Taylor.
Whoever takes over the Mets’ baseball operations might very well be a Conforto fan and push to re-sign him, believing in his rebound as well as respecting his New York bona fides. Yet that person might have inherited wildly different circumstances in which keeping Conforto around amounted to a slam-dunk.
Instead, the Mets and Conforto are where they are with each other, stuck in the middle, their fairy-tale relationship uncertain.