From a historical perspective, the two red-letter dates in this current evolution of the Mets’ franchise should be listed as follows.
The first is Nov. 6, 2020, the day hedge-fund titan Steve Cohen completed his $2.4 billion purchase of the team, drawing universal praise from a fan base that had publicly begged for more than a decade to be freed from the yoke of a Wilpon ownership irreparably damaged by Bernie Madoff’s ponzi-scheming.
The next will be Oct. 2, 2023, when Cohen finally gets to introduce David Stearns as the franchise’s first-ever president of baseball operations, a position the owner had vowed to fill since taking over in Flushing.
It’s reasonable to stack these two dates almost side by side because each represents a seismic shift in how the Mets intend to function. And both had a significant impact on what transpired during this train wreck of a 2023 season, as well as the direction of the franchise, even if Stearns doesn’t take the front-office reins until after Sunday’s finale at Citi Field.
The story of the 2023 Mets is all about money, a familiar theme for anything involving Cohen (and his $17 billion fortune). No one spent more cash on a roster this season, and the team’s $377 million payroll — the highest in baseball by nearly $100 million — was always mentioned at the top of any discussion regarding the Mets.
Sure, buying real-life All-Stars like they were baseball cards should provide a serious competitive advantage. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer didn’t come to the Mets because they loved pitching with the soundtrack of jets flying overheard. Cohen offered both of them matching $43.3 million salaries, still the biggest AAVs in the sport, and they happily took the bait.
But there also is a huge burden that comes with those gold-plated expectations, and this year’s Mets never got comfortable with the Armani label. Once closer Edwin Diaz blew out his knee in that freak WBC catastrophe (price tag: $102 million), the team’s equilibrium felt off, and the ensuing wounds never allowed them to regain balance. Some were actual injuries, such as Velander getting knocked out by a shoulder strain only hours before the first pitch of Opening Day. Others were self-inflicted, such as Scherzer and Drew Smith getting busted for illegally using sticky substances.
It didn’t help that the Braves pulled away so fast that they were a speck on the horizon to the sluggish Mets, whose annual June swoon (7-19) began the excavation for their early grave this year. But while the collapse by midseason closed one door — any reasonable path to the playoffs — it opened another: the opportunity for Cohen to once again flex his financial muscle, only for the future instead.
“We didn’t earn it,” Francisco Lindor said. “We didn’t earn a playoff spot, it’s that simple. You can say whatever you want to say. Nothing’s given.”
And in Cohen’s mind, the choice wasn’t all that difficult by the time the Aug. 1 trade deadline arrived. For someone who made his billions in the hedge-fund industry, he recognized a failing investment, and shifted his financial resources to collecting prospects in exchange for some of the Mets’ most coveted assets.
The strategy wasn’t unique at its core. Eating salary on contracts to get a better return in young talent is a standard deadline tactic. But Cohen changed the game by paying off gigantic chunks of the Scherzer and Verlander contracts, a bridge too far for many owners who couldn’t rationalize salary dumps of that magnitude.
Cohen paid roughly $88 million in exported salaries to bring back five prospects, essentially buying assets that typically can’t be purchased by other means. By doing so, and trading for the likes of Luisangel Acuna and Drew Gilbert, the Mets’ owner reshuffled the top rungs of his prospect ladder, significantly improving the farm system.
Over the course of a few days, Cohen flicked a switch, abruptly going from spending his way to a World Series to taking a slightly longer view, an organizational 180 that teams typically spitball in the span of months or years, not hours. Say this much about Cohen, he doesn’t seem to waste much time overthinking decisions. Which is probably what frustrated him so much about waiting for Stearns’ contract with the Brewers to expire at the end of this season.
“It turned out that it’s a moment in time where other clubs are thinking very short-term and I was thinking more intermediate and long-term,” Cohen said back then. “I was able to take advantage of that.”
General manager Billy Eppler famously coined the term “repurposing” to put a positive spin on what amounted to a Mets fire sale at the deadline. But there was no reason to pretend otherwise. If the Mets couldn’t pay for a shortcut to the World Series, it was fine to admit defeat and go with Plan B. Cohen isn’t the first owner to come up short in a big-money bid to buy a championship, and he’s not likely to be the last.
Fortunately for the Mets, Cohen is also among the richest to try it, so he has plenty of resources to quickly finance a change in direction. Which is where the Mets are at the end of the regular season, but it’s unclear how drastic a shift this will turn out to be. The Mets’ slow burn in the second half allowed for some extended auditions: Brett Baty, Mark Vientos, the long-delayed promotion of Ronny Mauricio. Rookie slugger Francisco Alvarez is a lock for catcher next season, and other youngsters could be pushing for call-ups in 2024, but the Mets aren’t quite ready for a significant NextGen makeover at the big-league level.
Knowing that, Cohen’s stated pledge for more fiscal restraint this coming winter could be an attempt to deke the competition on the free-agent front. Everyone expects Cohen to be aggressively involved in the bidding for Shohei Ohtani, despite the fact that he can’t pitch until 2025 at the earliest, and that’s in addition to the Mets having to rebuild their rotation around the only two pillars left: Kodai Senga and Jose Quintana.
Given the Mets’ success with Senga’s acclimation, they should have a legit shot at another Japanese star, Orix Buffaloes ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but he’s probably the second-most coveted free agent this winter to Ohtani. Considering that starting pitching is the highest-priced commodity in the sport, Cohen is going to be tempted to throw his cash around again, and that’s before even getting into the trade speculation for Juan Soto, who is expected to seek a $500 million deal when he’s a free agent after next season.
Enter Stearns, who probably wouldn’t have taken the Mets job — despite growing up a fan in Manhattan — without some assurances of autonomy from Cohen on the baseball front. We’ll get an idea of what his blueprint is at Monday’s news conference, along with the future of manager Buck Showalter, then see how closely it matches Cohen’s tempered fanfare for 2024.
“It won’t be as star-studded a team as it was, but stars don’t necessarily make for wins,” Cohen said at the deadline during his last public remarks. “I think we’re going to be highly competitive.”
The Mets better be after this year’s debacle, and now it’s going to be on Stearns to beat Cohen’s modest projections. With the help of a generous allowance from Uncle Stevie, no doubt.
“Even though this year was a really difficult pill to swallow collectively,” said Pete Alonso, whose pending free agency is bound to create more uncomfortable trade chatter around him, “I think the future is extremely bright for certain guys, and also what we have coming down the pipeline.”
The Mets really have nowhere to go but up after this past season. And Stearns can’t be introduced quickly enough.