For weeks, the specter of Steve Cohen owning the Mets has served as medication of sorts for fans sickened by what is so far another season of disappointment. Every bitter loss has been soothed at least somewhat by the thought of what a multi-billionaire with a fan’s thirst for a championship -- a description that reportedly fits Cohen -- might do to improve the ballclub.
In fact, the Mets’ faithful seem to see the new owner as their own personal Santa Claus, with everyone drawing up their own wish list of players to be purchased on his dime, presuming that the new owner is going to spend on the team the way he does on his ballyhooed art collection.
And now that Cohen has officially reached agreement to take over ownership of the franchise, pending a November vote of approval by the other Major League Baseball owners, the anticipation of his reign is practically palpable.
Indeed, there are all sorts of questions to be answered in the coming weeks about how the new boss will run the organization, whether he’ll clean house and hire new people to run the baseball operations department, and, above all, whether he’ll use his financial might to make the Mets nothing short of Yankee-like in pursuit of winning.
Of course, it’s possible that Cohen could decide on a patient approach, preferring to spend more initially on scouting and development than major-league players, with the goal of building a sustainable winner.
However, the Mets already have a strong core of young, cost-efficient position players that have opened a window to win championships for at least the next few years, and beyond that, the strongest argument for Cohen immediately flexing his muscle is the presence of one Jacob deGrom.
As it is, the Mets have failed to take advantage of having the best pitcher in baseball, missing the playoffs in 2018 and 2019 even while deGrom was winning back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards, and they’re on the precipice of doing so again as their ace continues his run of dominance, in contention for a third straight Cy Young.
And while deGrom turned 32 in June, an age that often signals the outer edge of a pitcher’s prime, his athleticism and loose-limbed delivery draws a consensus from scouts that he has a few more years of brilliance in that right arm.
“He’s a very young 32,” says one long-time scout. “He’s very fluid, and it looks like there’s a lot of tread on the tires because he was a shortstop (in college) first. Honestly, he still looks like he’s getting better.”
Remarkably, in fact, deGrom is throwing harder this season, reaching 101 mph on his fastball for the first time in his career.
All of which makes the case that the future is now for Cohen to make a huge splash immediately and surround deGrom with as much talent as possible in pursuit of the Mets’ first championship since 1986.
And because the only high-ceiling pitching prospects in the farm system are at least another year away from being major-league ready, while Marcus Stroman heads for free agency and Noah Syndergaard recovers from Tommy John surgery, there’s no way around it: Cohen will have to spend for the Mets to truly have a shot at a championship in the next couple of seasons.
With the expiring contracts of Stroman, Wilson Ramos, Jed Lowrie, Yoenis Cespedes, Rick Porcello and Justin Wilson, as well as a few others, freeing up in excess of $50 million in payroll, Cohen has room to maneuver even before digging into his deep pockets.
How should he best spend? The Mets have depth, especially in the aforementioned young core that now includes Andres Gimenez, but what they need are top-of-the-market talents, especially on the pitching side.
And that seems to be Cohen’s style, considering he reportedly paid $141 million for a “Man Pointing” bronze sculpture in 2015, the most anyone has ever paid for any type of sculpture.
Here then, while leaving the GM/manager decisions to the side for now, is my quality-over-quantity to-do list for the new owner:
1) Sign J.T. Realmuto
Nothing would immediately endear Cohen to Mets’ fans more than going out and getting the best catcher in baseball on the free agent market, especially because he’d be stealing him away from the Phillies, who are looming as a perennial contender in the coming years.
The Phillies want Realmuto back, but negotiations that began in the spring haven’t produced much traction, and the gap is wide between the two sides, according to an informed source. If he does reach free agency, Realmuto is worth a big overpay, in part because there are precious few catchers in the sport who can offer so much offensively as well as defensively.
It might take something in the range of six years, $180 million to outbid the Phillies, which is a big gamble on a catcher, even one relatively young at age 29, but, hey, that’s the whole point of being a billionaire owner, having the luxury of spending long-term for short-term results.
2) Sign Trevor Bauer
This is especially enticing if Bauer sticks to his stated intention to sign only one-year deals, as a way of maximizing his earning power, because he’s just quirky and outspoken enough, even openly confrontational at times, to be a huge risk on a long-term deal.
But the 30-year old Bauer is also one of the best pitchers in baseball, and that can’t be overlooked, especially in a free agent class that’s very thin on starting pitching.
Put it this way: with Bauer as the No. 2 starter behind deGrom, then Seth Lugo as a strong No. 3, David Peterson showing potential as a back-end starter, and the expectation of Syndergaard returning at some point during the season, the Mets would have a championship-caliber rotation -- albeit with a need for more depth.
Meanwhile, Bauer is such a non-conformist that I think he just might stick to his year-to-year plan. And in that case, Cohen should offer him $40 million to be a Met in 2021.
3) Extend Michael Conforto
Conforto has raised his game in 2020 to finally meet the expectation level that came with his impressive debut in 2015 and that sweet left-handed swing. By making himself a tougher out, lining singles to the opposite-field rather than trying to launch home runs all the time, he has become one of the best hitters in baseball.
Conforto has also worked hard to make himself an above-average right fielder, and indeed his work ethic and popular clubhouse presence make him exactly the type of player Cohen should want to lock up to a long-term deal before he reaches free agency after the 2021 season.
Agent Scott Boras might have other ideas, but as Conforto made a point of telling me when I interviewed him in spring training, “Scott has my best interests in mind but at the end of the day it’s my decision.”
4) Sign Liam Hendriks
The bullpen has been a seemingly unsolvable problem for the Mets over the years, and as notoriously volatile as relievers’ performance can be from year to year, the ballclub can’t be shy about trying again for a fix in 2021, especially with Lugo almost certainly to remain as a starter. And Hendriks is worth a shot after emerging as a dominant closer the last two seasons with the A’s.
For one thing, there won’t be many other quality relievers on the free-agent market. For another, even if Edwin Diaz continues to show signs of putting his disastrous 2019 season behind him, the Mets can’t go into 2021 thinking he’s any kind of sure bet as the closer.