SURPRISE, Ariz. — Watching from afar while he played for the Mets, Jacob deGrom said he had his eye on the Texas Rangers. He did not get to see them play often, but definitely noticed when they doled out $581 million in contracts before the 2022 season to a group of free agents headlined by the All-Stars infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.
“You see those headline names, two of the best players in the game up the middle sign here, it definitely sparks interest,” deGrom said.
After a 102-loss season in which their team had one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball, Rangers officials were public about their desire to improve that area. To do so, the team’s majority owner, Ray Davis, authorized another winter spending spree. DeGrom noticed that, too.
“Sitting down in the off-season and going over places where you can see yourself, they were on the top of the list,” he said while standing at his locker here before a spring training game over the weekend.
After 13 years in the Mets organization — he was drafted in 2010, he won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2014 and he was named the N.L. Cy Young Award winner in 2018 and ’19 — deGrom surprised some by joining the Rangers this winter. They lured him to Texas with a five-year, $185 million contract. Based on certain conditions, the deal could add another year and reach $222 million.
That is a lot of money for a pitcher of deGrom’s age (34) and injury history (he has started a total of 26 games over the last two seasons). It was also a lot more than the Mets reportedly offered to keep him. Of course, Mets fans most likely don’t want to hear that. And it does not make the move any less surprising when deGrom, a year after the Mets won 101 games, repeatedly talks about joining the Rangers because he wants to win.
The Rangers, after all, haven’t had a winning season or reached the playoffs since 2016, and they play in the same division as the defending champion Houston Astros. The Mets, with plenty of stars and a record-setting $370 million payroll, are among the World Series favorites this season.
“For me, the amount of the interest that the Rangers showed right away was huge for me,” deGrom said.
“And the vision here,” he continued, before alluding to the teams’ differing outlooks. “That’s been said before about the chances of winning, but it all boils down to getting out there and seeing where you are when the season ends.”
At that point, he knows, anything can happen. Even though deGrom missed the first four months of last season with a shoulder injury, the Mets finished with the second-highest win total in franchise history but were bounced from the playoffs in the first round by the San Diego Padres. The 87-win Philadelphia Phillies, who slipped into the postseason as the final N.L. wild-card team, ended up in the World Series and got within two victories of a title.
“What we’ve done with the pitching here,” deGrom said of the Rangers, “you get these guys in the playoffs and you’ve got a chance.”
With the playoff field having expanded to 12 teams from 10 before last season, the Rangers and deGrom are hoping that their improvements are enough to put them in contention. In hopes of remaking the team’s starting rotation, General Manager Chris Young complemented his aces, deGrom and Jon Gray, by signing the free agent pitchers Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney, re-signing Martín Pérez and trading for Jake Odorizzi. In all, the Rangers spent $246 million in free agency this winter.
“I signed here and they continued to make moves to make the playoffs,” deGrom said. “The goal is to win a World Series.”
DeGrom said that the most fun he has had playing baseball was reaching the 2015 World Series with the Mets. Coincidentally, they lost that series to the Kansas City Royals, a team that had Young on its pitching staff. During an hourlong video chat before he signed, deGrom said he heard Young’s World Series goals for the Rangers and how they wanted him to be a big part of that plan. DeGrom said he also spoke with Manager Bruce Bochy, who won three World Series titles with the San Francisco Giants and was lured back to the dugout by Young this winter.
DeGrom was a free agent because he triggered the opt-out clause in the five-year, $137.5 million contract extension he signed with the Mets in 2019. Although he said throughout last season that he wanted to remain with the Mets for his entire career, there was fear all along that he would leave.
When the off-season began, Mets General Manager Billy Eppler said he made a pact with Stephen Veltman, deGrom’s agent, about staying in touch. It wasn’t until after deGrom chose the Rangers that the Mets signed Justin Verlander, a three-time winner of the American League Cy Young Award, to replace him.
“They did everything right by me,” deGrom said of the Mets. “I’m very thankful for my time there.”
DeGrom insisted he was comfortable in New York. He knew the organization and vice versa. His family knew the area. Fans knew him as the team’s longest-tenured star. Coming to the Rangers will mean starting from scratch; in addition to the personal changes, DeGrom said he had never previously been teammates with anyone in the Rangers clubhouse.
“It was never that I wanted to leave New York,” he said. “It’s not like I wanted out of there. I enjoyed my time there. I have great friends still from there. And it was just that the Rangers pursued me and came after me, and when you sit down and try to go over the places you can see yourself playing, the Rangers were definitely atop that list.”
Little by little, deGrom is getting to know his teammates. Jonah Heim, the Rangers catcher who lives in the Dallas area in the winter, said he first sat down with deGrom after the pitcher’s introductory news conference in December. DeGrom said his adjustment, so far, has been smooth.
The Rangers have been cautious with him as he works his way back from side tightness that cropped up when he first arrived in camp two weeks ago. And his six-year-old son, Jaxon, is already getting used to wearing Rangers gear.
“He just wants to pitch and I think he’s going to fit in well with this group,” Bochy said.
“He’s pitched in New York,” the manager added, “and you spend some time there you can handle just about anything.”
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