In some corners, the honeymoon lasted a few months. Already, I am receiving emails and tweets from angry Mets fans wondering whether Steve Cohen is the Wilpons, just hoarding a larger stash of money.
After all, why was George Springer not under the Christmas tree? Why wasn’t Trevor Bauer provided to joyously greet 2021? Why James McCann and not J.T. Realmuto?
Cohen’s promise was that the Mets would spend like a big-market team, and he should be held to that promise. But that promise has not been broken this offseason. At least not yet.
If you haven’t noticed, this market is moving slower than Wilson Ramos. Just consider Ramos’ successor. The Mets did not go for Realmuto, but did hand McCann a four-year, $40 million deal. No other team has spent $40 million in free agency — in total (the Royals at $39.5 million are next). McCann is the only non-foreign free agent who has even received a contract of more than two years.
Two months into free agency — coinciding with the end of 2020 — half the majors’ teams (15) had not signed a non-foreign free agent for more than $1 million, including the entire NL Central. Keep in mind how little $1 million is when the average 2020 salary would have been $4.4 million had a full season been played. A dozen teams had yet to sign a free agent to a major league contract for any amount, including the Yankees.
After McCann, the two largest non-foreign free-agent pacts were Marcus Stroman (Mets) and Kevin Gausman (Giants) accepting the $18.9 million qualifying offer (yes, those count as free-agent signings). The offseason market so far has been highlighted — if highlighted is even the right word — by trades for starters (Lance Lynn, Yu Darvish, Blake Snell), a reach out for projectable players who do not break the bank (McCann, Trevor May, Drew Smyly) and the signing of foreign players compelled by posting deadlines (Kohei Arihara, Ha-seong Kim and by this Thursday Tomoyuki Saguno).
Cohen is a poker player, so think of the $74.65 million spent on McCann, May, Stroman and Sam McWilliams as the ante for the player at the table with by far the most chips. He also is playing in a game in which the rest of the NL East has spent $28.99 million — $27.99 million of that by the Braves. Within this context remember that even Cohen’s detractors will tell you that: 1) He excels at reading markets, and 2) He abhors bad deals.
That doesn’t mean he can’t misread a market. It already has happened in his new Mets job in a failed attempt to hire a president of baseball operations. Cohen did not fully appreciate how the three Cs were working against him with desired candidates: 1. comfort in their current jobs, 2. contracts that forbid movement, 3. concerns about his reputation and history in how he ran, at least, his old hedge fund.
But I do not think he is misreading this market. Because in many ways, he is the market. There simply are not many teams involved, especially at the high-price level. No remaining big free agent is signing without knowing if Cohen will blink and beat it.
Will he blink? Maybe. When he wants something — a rare piece of art or the Mets, as examples — he has extended. And one of many reasons the market is frozen is that the agents for the best players don’t want to undersell their clients, ever — even in a pandemic — and in this moment want to see if Cohen gets new owner-itis and loses patience/reacts to fan anger and just sets the top of the market by extending for, say, Springer. But why set the market if you are the market?
Also, let’s take him at his word. Among other things he has said, he will “not spend like a drunken sailor,” indicated to The Post’s Steve Serby last week that he is unlikely to go over the $210 million luxury-tax threshold in 2021 because he believes long-term flexibility is vital and tweeted after the Snell trade, “Give the Padres credit. They had a top 5 farm system that gave them flexibility to trade for Snell. Newsflash, the Mets farm system needs to be replenished.”
What should we take from all that?
That Cohen is unlikely to bid against himself for the top of the market without a clear sign he must. The Blue Jays are the only other club known to want to spend lavishly in free agency, but historically it has been difficult to lure top free agents to Canada. Cohen will have to believe that a Springer or DJ LeMahieu is really going before he considers that game of chicken. There certainly are other quieter suitors. But, again, none of the remaining big free agents are signing without hearing Cohen’s last and best. He will not do a deal he calculates as bad just to stop the noise of even impatient Mets fans.
Plus, I would read his statements about wanting to boost the farm system as an indicator the Mets will sign (at most) one from Springer, Bauer and LeMahieu because each was qualified by their old teams and, thus, the compensation is lost draft picks.
In addition, I believe there remains an avenue in which Cohen shuns the remaining Big Three because, as opposed to art or this team, he does not think they will appreciate well with age. In that case, bet on him pivoting to something like signing Jackie Bradley Jr., Liam Hendriks, Jake Odorizzi and Sugano to meet his promise of a big-market payroll of $190 million-ish.
But he is still in play for it all and to reach that payroll with promises of more in the future. He has done nothing yet to truly destroy the honeymoon.
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