The Dodgers' J.D. Martinez watches his two-run home run off...

The Dodgers' J.D. Martinez watches his two-run home run off Rockies starting pitcher Chris Flexen during the first inning of a game on Sept. 28, 2023, in Denver. Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

TAMPA, Fla.

Just because Mets owner Steve Cohen sits on an $18 billion fortune doesn’t mean he can’t drive a hard bargain, too.

The hedge-fund titan with the highest luxury-tax threshold named after him swooped in like a Black Friday midnight shopper to acquire free-agent slugger J.D. Martinez, waiting until a week before Opening Day to shake on a one-year, $12 million deal with agent Scott Boras, according to sources.

Cohen had been steadfast on two things when it came to his Mets for the upcoming season. The first was getting a grip on his bloated expenses, turning to newly hired president of baseball operations David Stearns to assemble a competitive roster without substantially adding to the sport’s No. 1 payroll. The second was convincing people that he wasn’t punting on the 2024 season, an accusation that rankled him.

By playing this winter’s free-agent market like a hand of Texas hold ’em, Cohen got to make good on both of those pledges and upgrade a position that has inexplicably tormented the Mets over the past few seasons.

Let’s just take the previous two, when the Mets ranked 24th in FanGraphs WAR (-0.6) at the position, relying most on Daniel Vogelbach (.774 OPS), Mark Vientos (.610), Tommy Pham (.820), J.D. Davis (.683), Dom Smith (.560) and Darin Ruf (.413). Woof!

Now stack those numbers next to Martinez, who hit 33 homers for the Dodgers last season — the Mets’ DHs hit 47 in two years combined — with an .893 OPS, more than 150 points better than the Flushing squad in 2023.

The Mets had two glaring needs this winter: another front-line starter and a DH who could do more than just fill a blank space on the lineup card. Cohen couldn’t get the best free-agent ace on the market, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, despite a personal recruiting trip to Japan and a $325 million offer that matched the Dodgers’ winning bid. But he bided his time with Martinez, lurking on the perimeter, and ultimately took advantage of the market coming back to him.

“We’re going to be opportunistic,” Cohen said last weekend at Clover Park. “The goal is to make the playoffs.”

Just a few days earlier, Cohen spoke about heading into Opening Day with the current roster, sounding content with a relatively healthy spring training (aside from Kodai Senga’s shoulder strain) and putting faith in Stearns’ offseason handiwork. But if we’ve learned anything about Cohen during his three-plus years of ownership, he can’t resist his billionaire’s instinct to buy things, be it Picassos or Cooperstown-bound starting pitchers.

Cohen could have stayed the course, taken the field next Thursday at Citi Field with his $328 million payroll and then seen if these Mets were deserving of further investment around the trade deadline. By this point, nobody expected otherwise. The Mets could evaluate what they had in Vientos, maybe lean on the experienced Jiman Choi and use the other DH swings for regulars who needed a day off their feet.

But Cohen is not the settling type. Remember when he impulsively signed off on a $315 million deal for Carlos Correa — another Boras client, by the way — over martinis while on vacation in Hawaii? That was during a winter in which he already had spent $482 million on free agents, yet the Mets didn’t really have a third baseman, so why not bring over an MLB-caliber shortstop, with two World Series rings, to slide over next to Francisco Lindor?

The Correa gambit wound up imploding over a failed physical, but you get the idea.

Cohen uncharacteristically kept the checkbook stowed away this winter — other than the relatively modest payments to restock the rotation (roughly $46M) — but couldn’t let a legitimate DH pass him by over what amounts to pennies in the big picture.

The Mets are paying Martinez only $4.5 million this season, with the rest deferred in $1.5 million annual installments between 2034-38. That’s couch-cushion money for Cohen for a player who is a substantial upgrade at a woefully understaffed spot in the Mets’ lineup. Doesn’t get more win-win by that measure.

And Cohen delivered all that for far less than the $300-plus million for Correa or Yamamoto. This turned out to be a layup.

Before the Martinez grab, it had been a fairly low-profile winter for the Mets.

Earlier Thursday, the team unveiled its first-ever dance squad at Citi Field, along with the new food creations available at the ballpark for the upcoming season. But Cohen evidently had more on his mind than the updated Mex burgers and buckets of Korean fried chicken.

His mission, as owner of the Mets, remains clear.

“Obviously last year was a real disappointment,” Cohen said at his spring training media session. “I wasn’t expecting what happened to happen. So this year, I think we’ve built up sort of the floor of what’s possible. Listen, I think there are a couple of great teams in the National League, but other than that, I think we’re as competitive as any other team.”

With Martinez, a real DH, they are now.

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