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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

New Mets owner Steve Cohen may discover that it takes more than money to lure top free agents

New Mets majority owner Steve Cohen at his

New Mets majority owner Steve Cohen at his introductory news conference on Nov. 10, 2020.

Normally, the second week of December is way too early for a team to get antsy about the free-agent market. Especially during the winter meetings -- virtual or otherwise -- which typically involve more conversations than actual deals.

But this is hardly a normal offseason for the Mets, who now belong to the sport’s richest owner, the hedge-fund titan Steve Cohen, and are in the process of a franchise makeover at a time when too many MLB teams are more focused on layoffs than next year’s playoffs.

This is supposed to be the Mets’ winter, and Cohen -- along with former general manager and now president Sandy Alderson -- has shown every intention of making that a reality, even taking to Twitter to rev up the fan base. But as the Mets tried to close Tuesday on a four-year deal with catcher James McCann, as a source confirmed, we were reminded that it’s not so simple as merely throwing money around. You have to get the right people to take it.

Don’t get me wrong. Cash is great. Cash works. And the Mets already secured a nice bullpen upgrade in the former Twins’ set-up man, Trevor May, on a two-year, $15.5-million pact a week earlier. But as relentlessly successful as Cohen has been in the financial realm, he’s already admitted that the business of baseball, whether it’s recruiting a GM or wooing players, operates a little differently than he’s used to.

Cohen also has experienced, thanks to Twitter, that his adoring fan base wanted all these All-Stars in Flushing yesterday, something he playfully acknowledged with a few winter meetings-themed tweets this week. As someone new to this gig, when does Cohen start feeling like the Mets are overdue for a "W" and just decides to authorize a monster check for George Springer or Trevor Bauer? Maybe even J.T. Realmuto, if these McCann negotiations collapse.

This was the Mets’ plan all along. Now it’s just a matter of execution. At the top of the free-agent market, however, there are other teams to contend with -- albeit fewer this offseason if some clubs truly are as broke as they claim to be. The Mets apparently were running into some of that turbulence Tuesday night with reports that the Angels also remained in talks with McCann, an unforeseen complication hours earlier.

McCann figured to be considerably cheaper than Realmuto, with a shorter commitment in terms of years. But the presence of the Angels -- also believed to be a serious contender for Bauer -- suggested that his price might be headed above the estimates. And if the Santa Barbara native ultimately wanted to return home, the Mets likely would be back in the Realmuto game again.

The good thing? From the Mets’ standpoint, it’s only money, and Cohen has plenty. But from a baseball perspective, Alderson currently is the one responsible for the roster building, and devising a blueprint to deliver Cohen’s mantra of sustained year-to-year success, meaning he has to figure out the smartest methods to spend that wealth of resources.

"There are only two currencies in baseball: players and money," Alderson said last month on MLB Network Radio. "We have some money at this point."

That was Alderson’s way of saying the Mets would be all-in for free agency rather than using the organization’s limited commodity of young talent as trade chips. But in going that route, nothing is guaranteed, and Cohen may discover he has to overspend in some cases to acquires those desired pieces.

Again, that’s something he certainly seems prepared to do, not only as the Mets’ presumptive savior, but a lifelong fan of the team. These are no longer the Wilpon Mets, so Tuesday’s intensifying recruitment of McCann was only the beginning. Springer figures to be next up, with Bauer’s process expected to stretch out a little longer, and neither one was close to getting anything done with the Mets by late Tuesday night.

The Mets also remain on the periphery with DJ LeMahieu, according to a source, but they didn’t figure to be driving the market for him. More seeing where his price goes, and if the Mets’ other priorities somehow slip away, then perhaps jumping in.

It is still early. This is a baseball winter like none we’ve ever seen, and getting a read on player valuations should require more time to develop, for both sides. For the Mets, each passing day might feel like an eternity, given Cohen’s Type A drive to transform his beloved franchise into a perennial World Series threat. That goes double for the fans who have waited what seems like forever for an offseason like this.

The Mets are going to make their splash in free agency. What that looks like, or the precise timetable for it, remains to be seen.

New York Sports