Jacob deGrom Mets
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Free-agent starting pitcher Jacob deGrom is still watching his market take shape. It appears there’s a mystery team chatting with the right-hander out of public view. We tried to pinpoint which MLB teams not currently connected to deGrom could be playing that role.

The Tampa Bay Rays weren’t mentioned for all the obvious reasons. Naturally, news dropped just hours later that they made contact with the ace. It’s standard practice for the Rays to reach out to all top free agents. While they’ll likely never be the highest bidder, touching base allows them to find out if a player is motivated by more than just maxing out their earnings (like Charlie Morton a few years ago).

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic is reporting the Rays are “pessimistic” about their chances of landing deGrom because they won’t be in the same ballpark as other teams from a salary standpoint. You’d think this would be the end of Tampa’s deGrom pursuit. And, it very well could be, but we shouldn’t just immediately write off the Rays. This is especially the case if deGrom’s free agency lasts a little longer than he wants it to.

We don’t have to look far into the past for a comparable example. Just last winter, the Rays made a sincere effort to reel in first baseman Freddie Freeman. He eventually landed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a six-year, $162 million contract. This wasn’t far off from what the Rays offered, which was in the neighborhood of $140-150 million (with no state income tax, mind you).

The Rays opened 2022 with a payroll of about $78 million, which was a franchise record. Can Tampa Bay justify having someone like deGrom take up half their payroll with a $40-plus million salary? Probably not, but if there’s a team that could do it, it’s the Rays.

A Tampa Bay-deGrom agreement appears unlikely. Things can change fast in free agency, though. Remember how the Rangers seemed destined to give deGrom a blank check just a couple of weeks ago? Well, now it appears they’re more focused on other top options, like Carlos Rodon.

Outside of the salary issue, the Rays can find other ways to convince deGrom they’re worth considering. As mentioned before, there’s no state income tax, so $35 or $40 million goes further there than in many other states. Those numbers still wouldn’t beat Max Scherzer’s $43.3 million AAV record, though.

DeGrom is also from Florida. He’s a man with a young family, so this would likely be the best way for him to see his kids a lot, depending on what their situation is. And despite not drawing huge attendance numbers and being at the bottom of the payroll food chain, Tampa is a consistent postseason contender.

We’ve heard reports that deGrom would prefer a return to the Mets as long as there isn’t a huge discrepancy in contract offers. The Rays would have to play up the non-money benefits of playing for them to have a legitimate shot. It probably won’t happen, but you never know. We didn’t think the Rays would sincerely pursue Freeman, but they did.

One would imagine the pitching market probably won’t move significantly until deGrom and Justin Verlander sign. But if Rodon or Kodai Senga reach agreements first, their potential landing spots could change the offseason plans for teams who missed out.

So, if the Rays linger in the background, maybe deGrom will eventually think about them more seriously. Or, maybe he won’t and this initial contact is the end of the story. That’s the blessing and curse of waiting for free agents to decide where they’d like to play.

Matt Musico can be reached at matt.musico@xlmedia.com and you can follow him on Twitter: @mmusico8.

Matt Musico is an editor for ESNY. He’s been writing about baseball and the Mets for the past decade. His work has been featured on numberFire, MetsMerized Online, Bleacher Report, and Yahoo! Sports.