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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets' offseason plan should begin with Theo Epstein

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein looks

Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein looks on during a spring training workout on Feb. 12, 2020, in Mesa, Ariz. Credit: AP/Gregory Bull

With Sandy Alderson "absolutely" returning for 2022, according to a source, his first priority remains the same as it was a year ago. That would be hiring a president of baseball operations, and the Mets already have begun their in-house discussions regarding that process.

Not surprisingly, Theo Epstein is at the top of the list, and one person familiar with the club’s thinking believes the Mets have a real shot at the front-office architect that ended epic World Series title droughts with the Red Sox and Cubs. A big part of the equation, of course, is what owner Steve Cohen is willing to offer to get Epstein to Flushing, and it doesn’t sound as if they’ve crunched those numbers internally to this point.

Epstein, who resigned from the Cubs last November, currently is employed as an executive-in-residence for Arctos Sports Partners, a private-equity firm that invests and works with professional sports teams. He also is a consultant for MLB, but Epstein has said in the past he’s interested in team ownership at some point, and dangling a fraction of the Mets could make the baseball operations position one he couldn’t refuse.

But that’s a big step for Cohen, and it’s unclear if he’d be amenable to such a commitment, which is daunting even for an owner with a personal fortune worth an estimated $14 billion. Still, the Mets realize the pressure they’re facing in this pursuit, with a very limited group of candidates and the clock ticking. It surely wasn’t a coincidence that the Rays promoted their own front-office whiz, Erik Neander, to president of baseball operations last week, giving him a multiyear extension in a move that immediately took him off the Mets’ radar.

 

This season may have three weeks left, but people inside the Mets acknowledge the urgency to get this position filled. Letting the process drag deep into the winter is not an option. Alderson was unable to hire a president of baseball operations after Cohen took over the Mets in early November, so he settled for a general manager in Jared Porter, who lasted a month before being fired for his history of sending lewd, unsolicited texts to a female reporter.

At the moment, Alderson has been forced into running the baseball side — something he has no desire to do — because Porter’s replacement, acting GM Zack Scott, was busted for DWI and is on administrative leave (which likely will result in his firing at season’s end). While Cohen’s vision is for Alderson to return as president, it would be in the originally intended role, as more of an overseer of the franchise, reporting directly to the owner on system-wide operations.

Alderson’s goal from the jump has been "culture change" for the Mets, and while it hardly has gone according to plan, people inside the organization have noticed significant improvements in how the business is run despite a number of PR nightmares early on. The notable difference is not having former COO Jeff Wilpon so closely intertwined with every detail of the team, which tended to be suffocating, but the transition to this new way of life under Cohen is taking some adjustment as well.

Tuesday was the one-year anniversary of Cohen’s agreement to buy the Mets — a landmark date wildly celebrated by the fan base at the time — but his takeover of the franchise has experienced plenty of growing pains since then. What Cohen is discovering is that it’s not like buying a mansion or yacht. Somebody doesn’t just hand you the keys and you buy some new furniture.

The Mets' rebranding under Cohen basically took place on the fly, as Alderson hustled to interview front-office candidates and the ones he did hire blew up in his face.

As one baseball official explained it, the most successful teams have a tried-and-true system in place, with experienced decision-makers and a track record of consistency. The Mets have been just the opposite for the past two decades, constantly juggling managers and GMs, aside from the rare stability they enjoyed with Alderson and Terry Collins at the helm.

In bringing back Alderson, Cohen — a Mets fan himself — probably felt he could lean on a familiar figure and friend to get him up to speed. What this first year has revealed to him, however, is that the Mets are desperately in need of an established baseball operations president to get them back on track toward his pledge of delivering a championship in three to five years.

Epstein already has paved his path to Cooperstown by winning a pair of World Series rings in Boston and another with the Cubs. While it hasn’t been a century since the Mets’ last title, it certainly feels that way, which is another reason why Epstein would be the right man for the job.

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