Steve Cohen’s cash is burning a hole in the pocket of David Stearns’ khakis. Freed from small-market Milwaukee, the Mets’ new president of baseball operations is yearning for that first big-money flex, the chance to put his own franchise-altering stamp on next year’s roster.
It’s going to happen. Cohen Tax or not, the Mets won’t leave their greatest asset holstered this winter, especially when trying to protect a recently renovated farm system, a makeover funded by the owner’s financial largesse.
They just have to figure out where to funnel the cash. Or, more specifically, who wants to take it. We know the Mets’ first choice. That’s Japanese ace Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the solution to the team’s greatest need: a top-shelf starting pitcher.
While the Mets’ target is clearly defined, the pursuit of Yamamoto is complicated by more than a half-dozen suitors, creating a bidding frenzy that could push his price into the $250 million range. Cohen has the money. It’s more a matter of waiting on the decision, and the Mets can’t pivot to their backup plans until they know whether Yamamoto is coming to Flushing.
The same holds true for the rest of the market as well. As baseball holds its collective breath over the next destinations for Yamamoto and Shohei Ohtani, the industry can’t move forward. Between Yamamoto’s expected price tag and what should be a record-breaking contract for Ohtani, we’re talking about more than $800 million tied up in only two players.
Think of all the teams who will come up empty on both and still have sizable holes remaining for the 2024 season. That unspent money has to go somewhere. But until the Ohtani-Yamamoto drama is resolved, teams are sitting on piles of cash with their fingers crossed.
“It’s probably a little slower from a conversation standpoint at a winter meetings than it normally would be,” Stearns said Monday. “There could be a variety of factors that contribute to that, and a possibility is that yeah, the top of the free-agent market hasn’t moved yet. And often it takes the top of the free-agent market moving for the rest of the dominoes to fall.”
As of now, the Mets aren’t overly concerned with those other dominoes. They remain fixated on Yamamoto, the biggest non-Ohtani prize of this winter.
From a purely pitching standpoint, he’s the most coveted free agent out there, based on his generational talent and the fact that he’s available at the age of 25, which is something that almost never happens (OPS prodigy Juan Soto is the same age, but he’s attainable only via trade, at the discretion of the Padres).
No one seems exactly sure when Yamamoto will make his choice, other than it’s not likely to come until after these winter meetings, which officially end Wednesday night. It’s also unclear what Yamamoto has left on his agenda before selecting a team, but he should come to a decision long before his posting window expires on Jan. 4 at 5 p.m.
The Mets obviously would like to expedite the process because they still have plenty left to do, particularly if Yamamoto winds up elsewhere. Last week’s signing of Luis Severino to a one-year, $13 million contract gives them roughly 5 1⁄2 major league-caliber starters on their 40-man roster (we’re giving half-credit to Syracuse’s Mike Vasil, who could be ready for a midseason call-up). Last season, they used 10, and this year’s pending group could use a serious talent infusion at the front end.
Even with Yamamoto, the Mets would need more mid-tier help. If they miss out on him, the next elite free-agent options are Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, followed by Eduardo Rodriguez, Japanese lefty Shota Imanaga and Lucas Giolito. It would be hard to see the Mets competing on the trade front for the likes of Dylan Cease, Tyler Glasnow, Corbin Burnes or Shane Bieber only because of the cost in prospect capital. Cohen just signed off on pay-for-prospect swaps to bolster the farm system at last season’s trade deadline, so it seems unlikely for the Mets to blow through those youngsters already when the owner’s cash reserves are deeper.
“We came into the offseason saying we wanted to add multiple [pitchers],” Stearns said. “We’ve added one, and so I think certainly adding at least one more is needed. I wouldn’t mind adding more than that. But certainly at least one more is needed.”
Stearns provided some insight Monday as to how the Mets intend to allocate their resources, the rotation being the priority. He said they plan to go with in-house options at third base — a group that currently consists of Brett Baty, Mark Vientos, Ronny Mauricio and the newly acquired Joey Wendle — while also eyeing another outfielder and perhaps a DH.
How much Stearns has to spend on those latter two positions probably will depend on the eventual cost of more rotation help, whether it’s Yamamoto, Montgomery or spreading money around to the next tier of starting pitchers.
Whatever the route, Stearns sees a path to improving the Mets, with Cohen’s bank account ready to finance the upgrades.
“He’s been very supportive of what we want to do from a baseball perspective and he wants us to win,” Stearns said. “That is the priority for him.”
Just how big a priority? We should know that very soon.