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Some of the mystery surrounding Jacob deGrom evaporated Saturday afternoon, when the past-and-possibly-future-but no-one-really-knows-what-the-future-holds ace of the Mets spoke to reporters in person at Citi Field for the first time since 2019 and the first time in any sort of setting in Queens since a postgame Zoom conference last July 7.
Back then, deGrom’s 1.08 ERA had him being mentioned in the same breath as Bob Gibson and left him a good second half away from winning a third Cy Young and punching his ticket to the Hall of Fame as perhaps the most unique elite starting pitcher of all-time.
Of course, deGrom hasn’t thrown a pitch in a game that counts since then due to right elbow inflammation that sidelined him for the second half of the season and a scapula injury that befell him Mar. 31, four days after he and Max Scherzer combined to cover all nine innings in a spring training game against the Cardinals.
Given how the Mets cratered without him — they were 46-37 and held a 4 1/2-game lead in the NL East upon his final start but went 31-48 the rest of the way — deGrom might have been the NL’s most valuable player last season. Now he’s in a weird purgatory-like state with the Mets. Is he the last link as the final superstar of the franchise’s forgettable past, or a bridge to a more productive future in which even the game’s best players are just a piece to the puzzle?
The Mets would really like to have deGrom back for obvious reasons, yet they entered play Saturday with a 30-17 record and the biggest lead (7 1/2 games) of any division leader. The Mets also appear well-positioned in the near-term, with Scherzer signed at least through next season, Carlos Carrasco likely to vest his 2023 option, Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker also possessing player options and Tylor Megill and David Peterson each still in their pre-arbitration years.
DeGrom is officially signed through next season, as well, but said twice in spring training — once before he got hurt and once after — he plans to use his opt out this fall. An intriguing New York Post story this week indicated deGrom hasn’t always been in constant contact with the Mets through the first six weeks of the season — his appearance at Citi Field this week was his first since Opening Day and his locker had been occupied in between by bottom-of-the-roster types such as Patrick Mazeika and Yoan Lopez — and added to the perception that the Mets’ Steve Cohen-era spending sprees might have annoyed the player who took a hometown discount to remain under the previous regime.
Of course, a five-minute press conference wasn’t nearly enough time to find out if deGrom — so competitive that James McCann once said it wasn’t enough for him to win an individual battle but he also had to take his opponent’s soul — is mad the Mets made an instantly regrettable nine-figure offer to Trevor Bauer before making Scherzer the richest player in baseball history, in terms of average annual value, by signing him to a three-year deal worth $130 million.
Such a question will be answered — if not by deGrom’s words then his actions — this winter. In the meantime, deGrom has moved closer to returning to the mound by throwing from 135 feet. DeGrom said he’s felt good for several weeks and should throw off a mound soon, which would mark the progression of a spring training-like ramp-up.
But deGrom said he thought he suffered the shoulder injury because he tried to come back too fast during the abbreviated post-lockout spring training, which might be a sign he’ll need closer to six weeks to return than four and ensures his return date remains uncertain.
“That’s a good question,” deGrom said on an afternoon in which the Mets’ most mysterious figure reappeared and none of the intrigue disappeared. “I’m not exactly sure. I don’t think we put an exact date on that.”