For new Mets owner Steve Cohen, whose bid was formally accepted and approved on Friday, it's enough that he's merely not Fred Wilpon.
After losing $500 million or so when Bernie Madoff's scheme collapsed, the Wilpons used the Mets to prop up their personal finances for years. That meant a level of investment that in no way befitted the team that shares the largest market in MLB. So Cohen starts off with an outsized benefit of the doubt just by virtue of his someone else-ness. Noah Syndergaard's palpable enthusiasm drives this point home. Really, though, Cohen has before him a singular opportunity to announce his new presence loudly and boldly far beyond the merits of not being a Wilpon family fail-smith. That has to do with the emerging reality that almost no other team owner is going to be investing in the on-field product this offseason.
As a group, the current gaggle of MLB owners cares far more about keeping payroll down than winning baseball games. Early indications are that the trend will reach new extremes in the winter of 2020-21. MLB and its constituent owners no doubt lost money during the 2020 season because the COVID-19 pandemic whittled down the regular season to 60 games and didn't allow for fan attendance until the last rounds of the playoffs. Players agreed to pro-rate their 2021 salaries downward, which offset those losses to an extent, but strip away all that gate, parking, and concession revenue and it's a genuine hit. The league has floated a total figure of roughly $3 billion. That figure is very likely exaggerated, since MLB is not required to publicly disclose its financials, and whatever the figure is, it's spread across 30 ownership groups. So it's almost certainly not as dire as it sounds.
That said, owners are already using those (almost certainly overstated) losses as an excuse to undertake extreme austerity measures leading up to next season. Already we're seeing signs of this. Teams are declining entirely reasonable options on highly useful players -- Kolten Wong in St. Louis, Brad Hand in Cleveland, and Charlie Morton -- the Rays' likely Game 7 starter in the World Series, had they lived to play another day -- for instance. The non-tender market figures to be similarly brutal, and all of that is going to contribute to a depressed free agent market.
Therein lies Cohen's opportunity to make a bold first impression on fans and -- no less laudable -- a negative first impression on his fellow owners, who much prefer lockstep to good-faith competition. The Mets have a contention-worthy core of Jacob deGrom, Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Robinson Cano (assuming he continues to stave off deep decline), and Jeff McNeil, among others. That's a core you build around, not dismantle or allow to drift along in benign neglect.
Relatedly, the Mets appear to be more than $70 million under the luxury tax threshold for 2021. Given that they've never been over the line, Cohen should pay no heed to that figure. Throw in the opportunities for adding talent that will abound this offseason, Cohen should be prepared to heavily invest in the roster. While the 2020-21 class of free agents isn't the strongest it's ever been, names like J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, Trevor Bauer, DJ LeMahieu, and Marcus Stroman are available for hire. Cohen and Mets should be looking to hire no fewer than two or maybe even three of them. That's in addition to trawling the lower reaches of the free agent pool and non-tender market for additional help. Such an investment would yield drastically increased fan enthusiasm and drastically increased World Series odds for the debutante owner.
To be sure, Cohen has to do more than "just" add stars to the roster. The Mets under the Wilpons were far too lightly invested in analytics and advanced player development methods. The new owner must address those efficiencies in a hurry, but in terms of the near- to mid-term, it's about adding talent in advance of the 2021 season by spending money. Speaking which, here's what Cohen said about that prospect in the statement he released on Friday:
3/unwavering support throughout this process.— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) October 30, 2020
My family and I are lifelong Mets fans, so we’re really excited about this. With free agency starting Sunday night we will be working towards a quick close.
Let’s go Mets!
An investor like Cohen doesn't need to be told that when everyone else is doing one thing, there's opportunity in moving in the opposite direction. This offseason, MLB owners en masse will likely be looking to invest as little as possible in payroll with little regard to roster needs or contending status. Cohen, though, doesn't have to play their self-defeating game. He can and should move boldly to make the Mets legitimate World Series contenders in his first season as owner. All it takes is something he has plenty of to spare -- money.