Even with an expanded postseason field, the New York Mets will not play October baseball for the fourth consecutive year. The Mets won on Opening Day and split their first six games, but they never again pushed their record back to .500 in this short 60-game season. Fourteen losses in a 23-game span from Aug. 29 to Sept. 21 were too much to overcome.
Despite missing the postseason, better days lie ahead for the Mets. Longtime owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon agreed to sell the club to billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen earlier this month. The deal is reportedly worth $2.475 billion and gives Cohen a 95 percent stake in the team. The Wilpons will retain the other 5 percent as well as SportsNet New York, the team's television network.
The Wilpons first purchased a minority stake in the Mets in 1980 and they paid about $400 million for controlling interest in the team in 2002. They more than sextupled their investment in less than two decades. Good work if you can get it. Cohen, 64, is a lifelong Mets fan with a net worth north of $10 billion. He will instantly become the wealthiest MLB owner by a wide margin.
The sale is not yet final. MLB's subcommittee is currently vetting Cohen -- he was fined roughly $2 billion for his role in an insider trader scheme in 2012, a not insignificant blemish even though he was never assigned guilt -- and the ownership vote is expected to take place in October or November. He needs 23 of the 30 owners to vote for him to finalize the sale.
Cohen is unlikely to be approved unanimously -- dissenters are more likely to be concerned about his potential to spend wildly and raise the salary bar for players than his insider trading history -- but he is expected to be approved. Once that happens, the Wilpons will be pushed into the background and a new era of Mets baseball will begin. Let's break down what Cohen means for the Mets.
What kind of owner will Cohen be?
In a way, the Wilpons were a throwback -- a relic, even -- to a time when owners were heavily involved in the day-to-day operations, so much so that they reportedly had to sign off on every little transaction. While no baseball operations department truly has 100 percent autonomy, these days owners are much more willing to delegate. The Wilpons were not.
For what it's worth, Cohen says he intends to let his baseball operations people run the baseball operations, indicating he will not be meddlesome like his predecessors. That doesn't mean he will be disconnected or disinterested in the team, hardly, but he's not going to interfere in areas that aren't his expertise.
"It's premature to talk about management decisions," Cohen recently told Joel Sherman and Thornton McEnery of the New York Post. "But I can say with certainty that baseball people will be running baseball operations."
The Mets play in the game's largest market and they opened a beautiful new ballpark in 2009, yet payroll has consistently ranked middle of the pack rather than among the game's highest under the Wilpons. Look at their last five Opening Day payrolls:
- 2016: $135.2 million (10th highest in MLB)
- 2017: $154.5 million (15th)
- 2018: $150.7 million (12th)
- 2019: $158.7 million (13th)
- 2020: $181.9 million (5th) (full season payroll prior to COVID-19 pandemic)
Keep in mind that insurance partially reimbursed the Mets for David Wright from 2017-19 and Yoenis Cespedes from 2018-19, which is not reflected in those Opening Day payrolls. The team's effective payroll was actually a bit lower those years. Either way, the Mets have typically not spent like a large-market team. The Wilpons handicapped the team financially.
Cohen has the liquidity to infuse the Mets with cash and raise payroll immediately, and maybe he will. We don't know that for certain but it seems like a good bet. Ideally, Cohen would help the Mets become the Dodgers or Yankees, a huge-market team that is smart enough to dig up Chris Taylor and Max Muncy or Luke Voit and Gio Urshela, and also willing to spend $300 million on Mookie Betts or Gerrit Cole when they become available. That's the best-case Cohen scenario.
Perhaps Cohen sees the Mets as a money-making enterprise and nothing else, and will run the organization with the sort of devotion to efficiency that became a black mark on the Astros. The hunch here -- and I emphasize this is just a hunch -- is Cohen cares deeply about the Mets and wants to win, but will be smart about it. Throwing money around only gets you so far in this game and I think he knows that, and will take the necessary steps to bring the Mets up to speed.
Beyond the on-field stuff, the hope is Cohen will bring some professionalism to an organization that trips over its own feet far too often. The Wilpons forced Pedro Martinez to pitch injured. They mocked Carlos Beltran. They didn't give the baseball operations department a firm budget. They misspelled the general manager's name in a press release. Amateur hour, through and through. Cohen putting an end to the laughingstock would be appreciated.
What's next for the front office?
Two years ago the Wilpons hired Brodie Van Wagenen to be their general manager and it was a bold, outside-the-box move. Van Wagenen was a very successful player agent with basically no front office experience who crossed over to the other side of the table. He's had some hits (J.D. Davis trade, mostly), but also many big misses (Jarred Kelenic trade, Jed Lowrie signing, etc.).
Van Wagenen is two years into a four-year contract and his future with the organization is unclear. Cohen cleaning house and bringing in his own people would be understandable and perhaps should be expected. Once he assumes control of the Mets, there are three major front office items Cohen will need to address in short order. Here are the three in rough order of importance.
1. Pick a general manager. Cohen has already made one significant organizational decision. He has announced he will hire former Mets GM Sandy Alderson as team president, should the sale be approved by the other owners. That could be an olive branch to the owners who are on the fence about Cohen, because Alderson is highly respected and would be seen as the adult in the room.
Here is Cohen's statement on his plans to hire Alderson
If I am fortunate enough to be approved by Major League Baseball as the next owner of this iconic franchise, Sandy Alderson will become president of the New York Mets and will oversee all Mets baseball and business operations.
Sandy is an accomplished and respected baseball executive who shares my philosophy of building an organization and a team the right way. I am excited to have Sandy in a key leadership role with the Mets if my purchase of the team is approved. Lets' Go Mets!
The fact Alderson will oversee baseball and business operations tells us he will not be the day-to-day baseball operations decision-maker. He's going to hire a general manager, or perhaps a president of baseball operations or chief baseball officer, the sort of high-ranking executive found in most modern front offices. A dedicated person to run baseball operations and report to Alderson.
Looking around the league, you don't have to try real hard to envision Cohen trying to lure Theo Epstein to the Mets. When he left the Red Sox in 2011, Epstein cited legendary football coach Bill Walsh's theory that coaches and executives have a 10-year shelf life in one place. This is Epstein's ninth season as Cubs president of baseball operations. Is it time for a new challenge? If nothing else, Epstein would bring instant credibility to a Mets team that desperately needs it.
ESPN's Buster Olney recently speculated Cohen could try to lure Brian Cashman away from the Yankees, though Cashman is fiercely loyal to the Yankees and that would be a hard sell. Are Cohen's pockets deep enough to steal Andrew Friedman away from the Dodgers? Friedman signed a contract extension this past offseason, but that doesn't mean he won't leave. Rangers GM Jon Daniels and Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns are native New Yorkers.
Cohen could also seek the next Epstein or the next Friedman. Diamondbacks assistant GM Jared Porter has long been considered a future GM, ditto Brewers assistant general manager Matt Arnold and Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo. Perhaps Cohen will blaze a trail and hire the first female GM, such as MLB's vice president of baseball operations (and former Dodgers assistant GM) Kim Ng or Red Sox senior vice president Raquel Ferreira. The possibilities are endless, truly.
Assuming Cohen does move on from Van Wagenen (not a given but it seems likely), the Mets GM job would be awfully desirable. You'd come in with a new owner capable of spending, you're in a huge market, the ballpark is splendid, and there's real talent on the MLB roster. Also, there are only 30 of these jobs and they're hard to get. They're desirable even with all the pressure, and I'm sure the next Mets GM will feel that pressure immediately.
2. Build an analytics department. It would be wrong to say the Mets have no analytics department. They have one, it's just smaller than most, especially relative to other large-market teams. The Mets reportedly employ a few full-time analysts and a handful of interns, and that's about it. Two years ago Marc Carig and Eno Sarris of The Athletic reported the Mets had three full-time analysts compared to 20 for the Dodgers and Yankees.
One of the first orders of business -- maybe the first order of business -- for Cohen's top baseball operations executive will be building a modern analytics department. More analysts, more data, more innovation. Cohen is a hedge fund guy. He's relied on data and information to develop strategies and build his fortune. There's no reason to think he won't want his baseball team to operate the same way. Bringing the Mets into the 21st century analytically is a must.
3. Improve the scouting infrastructure. There have been long been rumblings that the Mets underscout the low minors. They prioritize Triple-A and Double-A because those players are closer to the big leagues, but that also means up-and-comers in rookie ball and Single-A could slip through the cracks. They seem to have underrated Kelenic when they traded him. They gave up Jordan Humphreys, their No. 11 prospect according to Baseball America, to get Billy Hamilton, then released Hamilton a few weeks later.
In the year 2020, there is no stats vs. scouts debate. The best teams rely on both to inform their decisions -- the Astros skewed a little too far toward stats and now have one of the worst farm systems in the game -- and the Mets must increase their scouting efforts moving forward. Minor-league contraction is on the horizon, so scouting departments will shrink, but they are necessary. Building an analytics department and improving scouting are items 2A and 2B more than 2 and 3 here.
Roster needs and possible solutions
Now let's look at the Mets roster. In recent years, even dating back as far as their 2015 NL pennant team, the Mets have had high-variance rosters. The baseline talent level is something like 82-84 wins, but if things broke right, you could see them winning 95-plus games. And, if things broke wrong, they could win 70-something games. That was again the case this year.
The rotation going forward is the incomparable Jacob deGrom -- the numbers are whatever they are, but watching him pitch, it is hard to believe deGrom is not the best pitcher in the world, he is unreal -- and rookie lefty David Peterson, and that's about it for healthy arms. Noah Syndergaard is coming off of Tommy John surgery and is a question mark in 2021. Marcus Stroman (who opted out of the season), Rick Porcello, and Michael Wacha will all be free agents, and the "Seth Lugo as a starter" experiment has been hit or miss. Steven Matz has been so bad this year he could be non-tendered.
Reinforcing the rotation behind deGrom is imperative and, ideally, the Mets would go into next season with Peterson as their high-upside No. 5 starter rather than their No. 2 or 3 starter. I like Lugo and trying him as a starter next year, after a proper offseason and spring training to prepare, seems worthwhile. Even then, the Mets will need two starters to round out the rotation, and then better minor-league depth to support them, because injuries are inevitable in a 162-game season.
The Mets had one of the highest-scoring offenses in the game this season and much of their position player core is either signed or under team control long-term. Consider:
- 1B Pete Alonso: Under team control through 2024.
- 2B Robinson Cano: Signed through 2023.
- 3B/OF J.D. Davis: Under team control through 2024.
- SS Andres Gimenez: Under team control through 2025.
- IF/OF Jeff McNeil: Under team control through 2024.
- OF Brandon Nimmo: Arbitration-eligible through 2022.
- SS Amed Rosario: Under team control through 2023.
- 1B Dominic Smith: Under team control through 2024.
Cano turns 38 in December and while he has had a very strong 2020 season, that contract will probably be a problem at some point. It is what it is. I'm willing to chalk Alonso's down season up to the weirdness of the shutdown, and the inevitability of the universal DH means there's room in the lineup for him and Smith. Gimenez's emergence has turned Rosario into trade bait.
The only core position player not signed or under team control long-term is Michael Conforto, who can become a free agent after 2021. Van Wagenen recently told reporters, including SNY's Danny Abriano, the two sides have had "preliminary conversations" about an extension, but nothing is imminent. Conforto is a Scott Boras client and Boras typically takes his top clients out into free agency.
"Everyone always says that Scott is a big free agency guy and he's a big fan of that, but Scott ... is obviously going to give me the best advice that he feels he has for me as a player and for my career," Conforto told reporters, including MLB.com's Anthony DiComo, in February. "Ultimately, it's my decision. I think it's somewhat of a misconception about Scott and his clients. He wants what's best for us. He's going to give us his best advice. But at the end of the day, he'll tell you, 'It's my client's decision.'"
The shutdown has thrown a wrench into free agency and we don't really know what to expect at this point, but Conforto will reach free agency just before his 29th birthday, and he would've been a $100 million player in the Before Times. Extending Conforto may save a few bucks now -- there's rarely a discount when a player signs an extension one year prior to free agency, however -- but, more importantly, it'll keep him in the lineup and part of the core, while deGrom is in his prime and Alonso and others are cheap.
One thing the Mets must do is improve their team defense, which is easier said than done. Nimmo is miscast in center field and third base can be adventure regardless of who's playing there (Davis or McNeil). The Mets rank 27th in Defensive Efficiency and 26th in Defensive Runs Saved this year. A better analytics department can help improve positioning, though that will only go so far. The Mets have clear defensive deficiencies in center field and behind the plate.
Speaking of behind the plate, gosh, J.T. Realmuto sure makes sense for the Mets, doesn't he? They reportedly balked at including Rosario in a Realmuto trade package two years ago, and if Cohen wants to announce his presence with a big splash, it's hard to make a bigger splash than signing the best catcher in the game. Realmuto will be available for nothing but cash this winter. He fills a glaring team need and fits their contention window (i.e. now, while deGrom is still in Cy Young form).
The upcoming free agent class isn't great -- Trevor Bauer look as the No. 2 behind deGrom? Pretty great, I think. What about George Springer in center field and Liam Hendriks in the ninth inning? When a new owner with an obscene about of wealth comes in, it's hard not to play GM and address roster needs with big-name free agents.-- but there are more than a few upgrades available for the Mets. How would
And hey, a massive free agent shopping spree is entirely possible, especially since the free agent market could be depressed with so many teams hurting financially amid the pandemic. There will be bargains to be had and the Mets, thanks to Cohen's deep wallet, will be as well-positioned as anyone to capitalize. The Mets could be the most active and most interesting team in baseball this offseason, and for good reason.
Beyond the big-name free agents though, Cohen's front office will have to build depth and emphasize having quality Plan Bs and Cs, not just a great Plan A. The lack of quality depth has sunk them too many times in recent years, and quality depth is often what separates the great teams from the merely very good teams. That has always been the upside here, a great team. With Cohen displacing the Wilpons, the time for true greatness in Flushing may not be far away.