In a perfect Mets’ world, like the one someday funded by Steve Cohen’s billions, we wouldn’t have to consider scenarios such as using good players to move bad contracts. Say, attaching Dom Smith to dump Jed Lowrie ($9 million) or jettisoning Steven Matz to help erase Jeurys Familia ($22 million).
The Mets can’t afford to squander assets simply to make up for past mistakes, as tempting as it may be now that they are bumping up against the $208 million luxury-tax threshold. Because for all that money spent, the princely investment is not reflected in the 2020 roster, which does not have talent to burn.
Brodie Van Wagenen surely realizes this. But after his offseason moves, trading for outfielder Jake Marisnick followed by the back-to-back signings of pitchers Michael Wacha and Rick Porcello, we’re wondering if the Mets now need to create some financial flexibility, with few routes to do so.
The franchise has never paid any luxury tax since the payroll-slowing mechanism was introduced in 1996, and we’re skeptical that the Wilpons would be amenable to doing so now despite how minimal the penalty is for a first-time offender. Unless, of course, the Mets’ decision to already add roughly $20 million this offseason — with its possible tax implications — is a subtle hint of Cohen’s looming takeover.
Maybe this is how it begins. Not by shelling out for Gerrit Cole or Anthony Rendon, but by merely improving the team in more modest ways and sprinkling some extra cash around without sweating an artificial barrier like the luxury-tax threshold. As Van Wagenen put it Thursday before returning to New York, he’s been able to check off boxes to this point by adding rotation depth to go with a glove-first centerfielder.
These are not splashy acquisitions, of course. But they have the potential to be useful players, perhaps with high upside in one-year reclamation projects Wacha and Porcello.
Still, it’s hard to believe that Van Wagenen would value that pair enough to then barter with the non-Jacob deGrom pieces of his rotation, even with the skyrocketing price tags of premium starters this offseason.
When Van Wagenen was asked yet again Thursday if Noah Syndergaard remains an untouchable pitcher, he said he’s sticking to that plan (“Nothing has changed,” he said). He also sounded sincere in saying that the Mets intend to keep their six starters, calling this remodeled group “probably the deepest starting rotation in baseball.”
That’s a stretch, but we’ll forgive Van Wagenen for pumping up his own guys. And to be fair, it has produced three Cy Young trophies.
Signing Wacha and Porcello also allows the Mets to leave Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman in the bullpen, an area that could use another upgrade or two. The trick is how to do it if Van Wagenen doesn’t have much cash left at his disposal. That’s why the bloated contracts belonging to Lowrie, Familia and even the rehabbing Yoenis Cespedes ($29.5 million) are viewed as key obstacles to further improving the club.
Regardless of whether a sweetener is included, that money feels nearly immovable unless the Mets are willing to pick up cash on the back end for a player whom Van Wagenen views as a better fit.
When I asked him directly how he feels about spending young, controllable talent to clear payroll, he hedged a bit.
“You have to make good baseball deals,” Van Wagenen said. “We’re in a position now where we can only look to make good baseball deals and not feel like we have to do something. We’re not going to be in a situation where we’re just going to dump talent for money unless it allows us to do other things that we want to do. We have some latitude to try to make the best team we can, and we’ll do that.”
There is a precedent for this behavior. Van Wagenen’s first major move as general manager last year was to dump Jay Bruce ($28.5M) and Anthony Swarzak ($8.5M) in the package to acquire Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz from the Mariners. The problem? Not only did Van Wagenen inherit roughly $100 million on Cano’s remaining deal, but it also cost him three top prospects, including quick-rising centerfielder Jarred Kelenic.
That trade is shaping up to be an unmitigated disaster in nearly every aspect, not the least of which is Cano’s payroll-clogging salary.
Van Wagenen doesn’t seem inclined to take any similar big swings this offseason, but it’s relatively early. He’s bound to get restless during the next eight weeks leading up to spring training. And despite commissioner Rob Manfred’s warm endorsement of Cohen earlier this week, by all indications, the Wilpons are still very much calling the shots.
And if you’re wondering when that might shift, it would be smart to follow the money.