A baseball official asked a question recently that froze me: When the lockout ends, if you ran the Mets and only could try to sign one, would it be Carlos Correa or Freddie Freeman?
Wait. Didn’t the Mets already sign four pretty big free agents, notably Max Scherzer to by far the largest per annum deal in MLB history? Don’t they already project to a roughly $265 million payroll for luxury tax purposes — or $30 million-plus more than the runner-up Dodgers and $40 million-plus more than the third-place Yankees?
It forced this consideration: Does Steve Cohen have a stop sign? He doesn’t seem to with his art collection, for example. So why would he feel differently about another possession that brings him satisfaction — his baseball team?
The difference between running a $265 million payroll and a $400 million payroll for someone as rich as Cohen is negligible. The only stop sign is if you care about annoying the industry. In Year 1 — following some uncertainty if he would be approved by the other owners — Cohen played nice and stayed under the tax threshold.
No matter the threshold — if there is a threshold in a new collective bargaining agreement — the Mets already are pretty much assured of going over … and not by a little. But what if Cohen is the first owner who truly treats a franchise like, say, their yacht. No super-rich person would abide by thresholds on the finest accoutrements and most lavish parties — why have the yacht then? If you can afford it, why have a baseball team and not get the players you want?
Cohen has insisted a few times, beginning with his introductory press conference, that he would “not act like a drunken sailor” when it comes to spending. But the combination of Scherzer and $265 million are symbols, if not of inebriation, certainly of feeling a bit intoxicated by improving his roster and the fan reaction to it.
The Mets already have Francisco Lindor at short and Pete Alonso at first. But what if Correa is attracted to New York and/or the largest payday, would he move to third like his friend Alex Rodriguez did to get here? If the DH is coming to the NL, could the Mets put Alonso there and Freeman at first? Isn’t it stunning that both fit the Yankees so much better, and a change of ownership at least is going to force us to think about the Mets in connection with all players at the top of the market? Because you can make the case that Scherzer and Lindor also fit the Yankees better.
But other owners have had the wherewithal to dismiss industry norms and mainly haven’t. Instead, the boldest we will see is nudging up a payroll record from time to time. I suspect the same with Cohen. I could see him approving the first $300 million payroll and — if that is the case — as splashy and exciting as, say, signing Correa, Freeman or Kris Bryant would be, I think they are best served spreading it around. Here is how I would do that less alluring exercise (contracts are my guesstimates):
Yusei Kikuchi (two years, $26 million): He turned down a $13 million 2022 option with the Mariners. This would give him that same average for two years — could he get, say, $33 million for three?
Here is a fun game: If you were the Mets and could sign Kikuchi for two at $26 million or give Carlos Rodon one year at $20 million-ish, which way would you go? If Rodon is right, the Mets essentially would have three aces with Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. But is there already so much volatility with the two older aces plus Carlos Carasco that taking on the injury–beset Rodon just adds too much more risk? Think about this: The White Sox were willing to pick up the $16 million option on a reliever, Craig Kimbrel (albeit one they think they can trade), but did not give the one year, $18.4 million qualifying offer to a starter in Rodon. Does the team that knows him best know something the sport in general might not?
Kikuchi has made 70 starts in his three MLB seasons, tied for 23rd and one more than Scherzer. That durability is needed behind deGrom/Scherzer/Carrasco. Kikuchi’s 2021 season was akin to that of the Mets’ other veteran starter, Taijuan Walker. Both were first-time All-Stars, who then devolved to among the worst regularly used starters afterward. Was that a sign of fatigue worsened by coming off a 60-game season in 2020?
Collin McHugh (one year, $8 million)/Ryan Tepera (two years, $16 million): My original thought was to go with a lefty swingman like Kwang Hyun Kim, Martin Perez or Drew Smyly to complement righty Trevor Williams, which would give the Mets length out of the bullpen, tandem starter insurance and more comfort at keeping Tylor Megill and David Peterson at Triple-A for depth. Joey Lucchesi, who likely will miss most of the 2022 season after Tommy John surgery, actually would have been well suited for this task.
But I think Kim and Perez — with low strikeout rates — are too defensive dependent, and new GM Billy Eppler favors strikeout pitchers. Smyly almost certainly will get a full-time opportunity to start somewhere. So with the Mets not having a veteran lefty reliever, this adds righties who suffocate lefties: .429 OPS last year vs. Tepera, .442 for McHugh (the same as another righty relief free agent Brad Boxberger, by the way).
McHugh and Tepera would give a new Mets manager a buffet of late-game options with Edwin, Diaz, Miguel Castro, Seth Lugo and Trevor May — and Lugo and McHugh could be used for multiple innings (McHugh pitched three innings five times last year).
Andrew Miller (one year, $3 million): Andrew Chafin or Jake Diekman may be the safer bet for a pure lefty reliever. But in this case I am betting on the person. The Mets are trying to change culture, and Miller is a terrific clubhouse force. Plus, even in a down year he held lefties to a .545 OPS — which has value in a division with Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper, Washington’s Juan Soto and the potential for a Freeman reunion in Atlanta.
Righties, though, clobbered Miller (1.151 OPS). He’ll pitch at 37 next year. He’s endured injuries. He just may be at the end. But I think it is worth a gamble that he has something left.
Eppler will be familiar with him, having been part of the group that brought Miller to the Yankees after the 2014 season. So he knows Miller is fearless, can handle New York and improves culture.
Brett Gardner (one year, $3 million): Everything Eppler knows about Miller goes for Gardner. But would Gardner keep playing if the Yanks are disinterested in bringing him back (the distance from his Westchester home to Citi Field would be near equidistant to Yankee Stadium)? Would he be willing to Curtis Granderson it across town?
The Mets — with Mark Canha, Starling Marte and Brandon Nimmo — have a starting outfield. They need a real fourth outfielder, not the misplaced Jeff McNeil or Dom Smith. Even playing at 37 last year, Gardner could still field at a high level (including center field) and run. The last two months of the season his slash line was .261/.351/.441. I sense the Canha/Marte additions, in particular, were Eppler addressing a tough Citi Field scoring environment by adding more contact, speed and on-base percentage. Canha, Marte and especially Eduardo Escobar also are known as positive clubhouse personas. Gardner helps in both areas.
That is $35 million more of Cohen’s money for 2022 on Kikuchi, McHugh, Tepera, Miller and Gardner without long-term investment. I think it makes the Mets deeper and better.