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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

The Steve Cohen era means change is coming for Mets

The Mets' Michael Conforto slides home behind Phillies

The Mets' Michael Conforto slides home behind Phillies catcher Andrew Knapp on a fielding error during the fifth inning  at Citi Field on Sept. 6. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Steve Cohen, with an estimated $13-billion fortune, won’t be doing his offseason shopping in the "fruits and nuts" aisle, as super-agent Scott Boras once mockingly said of the Mets.

And it wasn’t an isolated incident, either. More like a winter-meetings ritual. Every December, Boras positioned himself in some high-profile area of a lobby or courtyard for his annual media address and took great delight in ripping the Mets for their frugal ways.

Considered the unofficial Opening Day of Boras’ efforts to separate billionaire owners from their cash, the agent’s greatest hit-jobs included the Mets choosing to live outside "Playoff-Ville" (2017), stuck in the "freezer section" (2012) and a NASA comparison involving "the Wright stuff ... but few astronauts." (2013).

File those away, however, in the dustbin of Mets’ history. You’re not likely to be hearing Boras’ stand-up act directed at Flushing moving forward, not with Cohen about to become baseball’s richest owner and the Wilpons removed from the decision-making process.

That’s potential good news for Michael Conforto’s long-term future with the Mets, depending on one other possible stumbling block -- whether or not Brodie Van Wagenen remains as GM. At best, you could say Boras and Brodie have a non-existent relationship, as past rivals in the agent game. At worst, well, this is a family newspaper.

No one knows what Cohen plans to do with the current regime, but he could be ready to act early enough to put a winter plan in place before free agency begins. The expectation is that a vote on Cohen will be taken well ahead of the next owners meetings, scheduled for Nov. 17, and he’s likely to receive the required 75 percent for approval (23 of 30 owners), according to multiple sources.

Currently, with the agreed-upon $2.475-billion sale, Cohen is allowed to be involved in a consulting role as the pending control person for the Mets. He’s already examined the tattered financial state of the franchise -- said to be awash in oceans of red ink -- so Cohen, as an astute investor, surely has an idea of what needs to be done to turn things around.

But as a lifelong fan, who grew up in Great Neck rooting for the Mets? That’s where Cohen could find himself at a crossroads, trying to navigate a route to the World Series while also securing a path to profitability. Maybe spending big this winter could facilitate both -- but with plenty of virus-related uncertainty still lingering, as we sit here in mid-September, there seems to be significant risk.

That’s why, for starters, getting a jump on someone like Conforto -- who doesn’t hit free agency until after the 2021 season — could be a smart investment. He’s a known commodity, a homegrown star going supernova this year, and isn’t fazed by the New York stage. Boras mostly steers his clients away from extensions when they get this close to free agency, but Conforto already has stated that it ultimately will be his decision.

If the Wilpons were still in charge, we’d say no shot. Despite Conforto’s allegiance to the Mets, there’s zero chance the Wilpons would pony up enough cash for Boras to deny his client a crack at the free-agent market. But here’s another wrinkle: the collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2021, and baseball’s economic system could be overhauled -- with a possible work stoppage looming as well.

Cohen could hedge his bets by trying to give Conforto, 27, more money before then and lock him up sooner, perhaps enough to get him and Boras to bite. Again, it’s a gamble for both sides, but we’re now seeing Conforto truly becoming the franchise player he was projected to be as the 10th overall pick in the 2014 draft.

Is there a better investment for the Mets on the horizon? The other obvious play, now that we anticipate Cohen getting into the free-agent bidding wars, is beating out the Phillies for J.T. Realmuto, who wasn’t in Tuesday’s lineup against the Mets due to a hip/quad strain. To date, the Phillies haven’t seemed to make any progress with Realmuto on the extension front, and that’s probably a wise strategy on the catcher's part with Cohen now on the scene. Even if Realmuto wants to stay in Philly, having a mega-billionaire running their NL East rival, right up the Jersey Turnpike, is a heck of a negotiating chip

As for the 2020 Mets, Cohen is like a mythical creature, talked about in the clubhouse but yet to have a tangible impact on their immediate push for the playoffs. Cohen exists on back pages, but not at the front of the players’ minds just yet.

"It’s something I can’t really speak on right now," Jeff McNeil said before Tuesday’s game. "That kind of goes into next year."

Otherwise known as Year One of the Steve Cohen Era. When life will be different in Flushing, and people’s opinions of the Mets should be forever changed, too.

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