Astros’ Alex Bregman could be at the center of uptick in Mets-Yankees free agency battles

Astros’ Alex Bregman could be at the center of uptick in Mets-Yankees free agency battles

For most of the nearly half century of major league free agency, the New York teams have avoided each other on that financial battlefield.

They tussled early on Dave Winfield. The Mets lost that one and in much of Wilpon ownership seemed to lack the ferocity for the fight. They might dip in late to try to steal David Cone, or make covert bids on Mike Mussina or Hideki Matsui. But that always played more like box-checking or face-saving rather than all-out pursuits.

The closest the two have come to pulling out all stops simultaneously was for a player neither secured. The Yankees offered Yoshinobu Yamamoto 10 years at $300 million. The Mets proposed 12 years at $325 million — the pitching record term he accepted from the Dodgers.

But as opposed to the Winfield-to-Yamamoto timeline, I suspect the Mets and Yankees will be renewing financial fisticuffs more frequently now that Steve Cohen is involved. There already has been speculation that the New York squads will be in a dollar duel next offseason for Juan Soto.

Unless there is residual distaste over a February 2023 arbitration that got contentious then spilled into public criticism by Corbin Burnes against the Brewers — at a time when David Stearns was merely an advisor and no longer running baseball operations — then the right-hander is likely to draw interest from both New York teams.

And one that I think could be particularly interesting involves Alex Bregman.

Let’s state the obvious: A lot can happen between now and free agency. If I were a betting man, I might, for example, wager that Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler and St. Louis’ Paul Goldschmidt do extensions before reaching free agency. Injuries and poor performance also can (and will) shake up the market. And there are plenty others, such as Max Fried, you can envision the New York teams vying for.

But Soto currently sets up as the best position player available, Burnes the best starter — unless Roki Sasaki comes from Japan. Yet I keep gravitating to Bregman because:

Alex Bregman may be at the center of the next financial war between the Yankees and Mets.Alex Bregman may be at the center of the next financial war between the Yankees and Mets. AP

It reflects on what happens this year with the New York teams. For the Mets, how does Ronny Mauricio heal after knee surgery? How does Brett Baty handle the position?

Players can get better, but neither projects to be a strong defender. Stearns is emphasizing that side of the ball. I do wonder if it is possible to have an overall good defense if you lack a strong hot-corner glove. How well would Baty or Mauricio have to hit to justify having a below average defender at the position?

DJ LeMahieu is an excellent defender at third. But he is 35. He has battled injury and offensive decline. The Yankees think they will get a rebound in 2024. But what if they don’t? They don’t really believe in Oswald Peraza as a starting player, and there is no one in the minors even ready to pretend to contend for the position.

There also is this: LeMahieu can have a strong year and, with Gleyber Torres due to hit free agency, switch back to second and put the Yanks in the market at third.

Third base is not currently deep in the majors. There are perhaps a half-dozen excellent two-way third basemen and players such as Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Jose Ramirez and Austin Riley are all signed long term. Matt Chapman, after signing a three-year contract with opt-outs with the Giants, may return to free agency with Bregman next offseason. But the industry this offseason demonstrated it does not value him at a high level.  And then what? Even Japanese star Munetaka Murakami, who is expected in one of the next two offseasons, is seen as a bat-first player who very well might have to move off of third.

This one you might want to close your eyes for: I just think Bregman is a winning player. It isn’t like analytics doesn’t see Bregman — he is seventh in Wins Above Replacement (Baseball Reference) over the past six seasons, just behind Mike Trout and Freddie Freeman, and just ahead of Arenado and Soto.

But his game has Jeter-ian qualities. He can give a team what it needs when it needs it: speed, power, a base hit, defense. Plus, big moments do not cow him. I know the sign-stealing always will taint the Astros’ 2017 title, but I think the Yankees win that ALCS if Houston has just an average third baseman. We always think of clutch hitters, but Bregman is a clutch fielder. He’s fearless and confident.

“I’m just focused on baseball and trying to help our team win, and let Scott [Boras] and his team handle all of that for me, so I can focus on what I love, which is playing the game,” Bregman said of his agent.

Twins' Royce Lewis is tagged out in a rundown by Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman during the fifth inning in Game 2 of an American League Division Series game.Twins’ Royce Lewis is tagged out in a rundown by Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman during the fifth inning in Game 2 of an American League Division Series game. AP

Ah, Boras. He is going to be talking to the New York teams quite a bit next offseason, since he represents Soto and Alonso — and Bregman, Burnes and Cody Bellinger, who has a good chance to be back on the market.

Boras recently worked out an extension with the Astros to keep Jose Altuve there and out of the next market. It seems a much longer shot that the same will occur with Bregman.

“We are not in discussions right now, but at some point we will have some conversations, and at some point we’re going to make an offer,” Astros GM Dana Brown said.

Brown said he does not see Bregman as the type who would be distracted if negotiations dragged into the season, and Bregman did not seem to care because, he said, Boras would only let him know if he thought something could actually get completed.

“At the end of the day, he loves it here in Houston, and I think he wants to be here in Houston. And we love him,” Brown said. “So at some point we’ll have a conversation and see how it goes. Is that possible [to do an extension when Boras does not often do so before free agency]? Yes, it’s possible. I think our willingness to sign him and his willingness to stay should push us over the line — or at least get us in the right direction.”

If not, perhaps the direction is the northeast and what should be more common New York-New York free agency battles.