2023 MLB trade deadline: Mets move decisively to brighten future prospects with Max Scherzer, David Robertson deals

Steve Cohen & Co. deserve credit for pivoting from their initial 2023 plans to take advantage of the market

Zigging when everyone else zags has its risks. The New York Mets are living one unfortunate version of that right now, having shelled out for the highest payroll in MLB history.

It also has its advantages. With the standings, and thus the trade market, mostly gummed up, the Mets decided to move expensive veteran pitchers — first closer David Robertson to the Miami Marlins and now starter Max Scherzer to the Texas Rangers.

In return for a crushing fall from sky-high expectations, the Mets are hoping to accelerate their Los Angeles Dodgers-emulating goals, repeatedly invoked by multibillionaire team owner Steve Cohen. They want to become an organization that is rich in both prospect capital and cash capital.

Down to a 16.5% chance of making the 2023 postseason, Cohen and GM Billy Eppler have clearly accepted defeat on their offseason zig toward going all-in on the sort of short, immediate window that so few front offices are willing to chase. Now, instead of directing Cohen’s seemingly unlimited largesse toward that directive, they are employing it to better the club’s less pinpointed but still crucial future aspirations.

Eppler told reporters that the move didn't signify a rebuild and, "It's not a fire sale. It's not a liquidation. This is just a repurposing of Steve's investment in the club."

Only by paying down a significant portion of the remainder of Scherzer’s record-setting contract — almost $16 million this year and $43.3 million next year — did the Mets unlock the potential that makes the deal worthwhile.

There’s still huge incentive and intent for the Mets to field a winner in 2024 — assuming Justin Verlander sticks around past Tuesday’s trade deadline — but they are currently exchanging a portion of their over-leveraged, right-now team for more fungible talent that might help them in 2024, 2025 and beyond.

The Mets drove themselves to this trade deadline moment with a faulty team, one they never intended to be stripping for parts to collect high-ceiling talent, but they deserve credit for swiftly recognizing and taking advantage of their opportunity to do so.

Over the past few days, as supposed sellers such as the Chicago Cubs and potential sellers such as the San Diego Padres have held on to their top players, the Mets have taken action. With significant emphasis on Cohen’s willingness to shell out money, the Mets have secured a group of young players that includes 18-year-old shortstop Marco Vargas, a fast-rising hitter in the Robertson deal with the sort of contact and discipline skills that have frequently portended stardom. In the Scherzer deal, they got Luisangel Acuña, the 21-year-old brother of Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr., who ranks among the game’s top 50 prospects. A thrilling free-swinger with a .315 batting average, seven homers and 42 steals (!) in Double-A this year who has played shortstop and some center field, Acuña could debut as soon as 2024.

Both are likely to feature on league-wide top prospect lists this winter. Prospect rankings are not inherently important — and that might feel like a harsh comedown for Mets fans who were dreaming of World Series parades a couple of months ago — but these are the type of players that good teams covet, which does matter in the quest to reenergize those same dreams.

With the past couple of days of deals, the Mets are snapping up prized players who could help by becoming contributors themselves or by simply existing in the system.

The best young hitters are identified earlier and earlier these days, and it’s becoming more difficult to pry them loose once they make a real mark in scouting circles. Vargas and Acuña are players who, despite their youth, can have immediate value for the Mets, either by playing or by giving the front office greater freedom and ability to swing future deals. Some of the brightest recent lights to be traded as prospects — Fernando Tatis Jr., Yordan Alvarez — were pried loose only during the relative anonymity compared to the phase Vargas is in now.

Scherzer and Robertson are established stars, yes. They are also 39 and 38 years old, respectively. Placing some eggs in a basket rapidly approaching its expiration date is fine, necessary even, but there’s a reason most MLB organizations follow the often-frustrating path of trying to keep as many future years as possible on the table. Zeroing in on a single year or two of baseball leaves you open to crushing failure.

The Mets’ plan for 2023? The initial use of Cohen’s cash? It failed. That wasn’t going to change through clinging to the main pillars for sentimentality or financial sulking. This next use — jumping to the front of the deadline market to bring Acuña, Vargas & Co. into the organization — might pay off.

For a highly leveraged, aging Mets team careening toward a total loss of a season, that shift in outlook is going to have to count as a win.