Balancing the Realities of Michael Conforto’s Service Time

There’s no shortage of people who think Michael Conforto should never have been demoted last season. The thinking among members of this group is that the Mets messed around with Conforto’s development by twice transporting the 23-year-old outfielder to Las Vegas rather than allowing him to work through his struggles in the majors.

Whether you agree with this sentiment or not, there is no arguing that Conforto did struggle, especially against LHP. There is also no arguing that the acquisition of a left-handed RF at last year’s trade deadline was directly related to said struggles.

The presence of that left-handed RF, Jay Bruce — and maybe more importantly the $13-million 2017 salary associated with Bruce that has scared off potential trade suitors to date — leaves the current state of the 2017 Mets outfield quite complicated.

As it stands now, hundred-millionaire Yoenis Cespedes has permanent claim in left, and Curtis Granderson seemingly has permanent claim in center, leaving Bruce or Conforto to man right. The defensively-superior Juan Lagares could spell Granderson against lefties (if he makes the roster, that is), which would leave one of Granderson/Bruce/Conforto in right. Further, there is some talk of Jose Reyes getting time in the outfield. So yeah, pretty complicated.

A 2015 summer addition, Conforto never had a chance of being Super Two-eligible post-2017. But last season’s two Vegas vacations have left his current service time at 1.043. Stated another way, if Conforto starts 2017 in Vegas and spends the first 48 games there, the Mets gain another year of team control. Given the superfluous state of the Mets current OF, this scenario, which would have sounded outlandish in March of 2016, is now worth considering.

Michael Conforto Salary Chart

≥129 days, ≥114 games <129 days, <114 games
Year Age Salary Year Age Salary
2017 24 Team Control 2017 24 Team Control
2018 25 Team Control 2018 25 Team Control
2019 26 Arb 1 2019 26 Arb 1
2020 27 Arb 2 2020 27 Arb 2
2021 28 Arb 3 2021 28 Arb 3
2022 29 FA 2022 29 $10.7mil (Arb 4)
2023 30 2013 30 FA

While it’s impossible to predict Conforto’s future arbitration salaries, I arrived at this estimate using the general rule of a 50% increase in salary each year of arbitration. A low-ish estimate of $2 million for Conforto’s Year 1 arbitration salary would yield a $6.75 million Year 4 arbitration salary, while a high-end estimate of $4.5 million for Conforto’s Year 1 arbitration salary would yield a $15.2 million Year 4 arbitration salary. $10.7 million is not only pretty close to the exact middle of these two numbers, but also conveniently lines up with the value of 1 win in 2022 when using 5% inflation.

Year $/WAR (5% inflation)
2016 $8mil
2017 $8.4mil
2018 $8.8mil
2019 $9.3mil
2020 $9.7mil
2021 $10.2mil
2022 $10.7mil

If Conforto turns out to be just an average regular, the Mets would still gain $10.7 million in 2022 surplus value. If he’s a lot better than average while in the heart of his prime, then the Mets’ 2022 surplus value would be much greater. If you think Conforto will be below average in 2022, then what the Mets do with him in 2017 is mostly irrelevant. Any way you slice it, the potential long-term financial advantage is discernible.

It’s no surprise that Conforto’s playing time projections are all over the place — Depth Charts projects 245 PAs, Steamer projects 319 and ZiPS projects 558. 48 games equal 29.6% of the season, which equates to 73 PA using Depth Charts projections, 94 PA using Steamer projections, and 165 using ZiPS projections. Take the average of those three and you get 111 PA for Michael Conforto over the first 48 games.

Which brings me back to my original title of this piece — is the value of 111Michael Conforto PA in 2017 worth more than a one-year deal for ~$10.7mil in 2022, Conforto’s age-29 season?

There are plenty of variables to consider when answering this, but the most important is probably comparing the 2017 versions of Conforto and Bruce. While Conforto projects as a better hitter, fielder and runner than Bruce, Bruce did run a 124 wRC+ against RHP 2016 and holds a 115 career mark. No one is confusing Bruce for Bryce Harper, but he’s a perfectly suitable platoon option in RF.

Also relevant is the Mets’ schedule over the first 48 games.  Using FanGraphs projections, the weighted projected win percentage of the Mets’ first 48 opponents is .477 — roughly the equivalent of a 77-win team. Now of course these 48 games won’t count any less than the 114 that will follow, but if you truly think Conforto is a better option than Bruce AND you had to choose 48 games to play Bruce over Conforto, the first 48 would be pretty ideal.

While Conforto looked miserable at times last year, it’s impossible to ignore that he posted a 152 wRC+ from July 2015 – April 2016 at the ages of 22-23. While his 2016 Barreled Balls May Not Have Been Ideal, he continued to hit the ball hard amidst his struggles.

I hope Michael Conforto is in RF when Noah Syndergaard throws his first 100mph fastball against Julio Teheran and the Braves on Monday, April 3. But if he’s not, then he must be 2000 miles away, getting at-bats in Las Vegas, rather than a matter of feet away, wasting away in the dugout in Queens. The latter simply doesn’t pay.

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