Sunday, August 6, 2023

We Were On A Break!

When Steve Cohen went from being a minority 8% stakeholder in the New York Mets back in 2020, to the majority owner, he ended what many fans of the orange and blue viewed as a dark period of time where the team was essentially held hostage by then owner, Fred Wilpon, whose death grip on the franchise was viewed by many fans as an eternal damnation. Due to years of poor organizational decision making along with the eventual collapse of the Wilpon finances at the hands of Bernard Madoff, the loyal fanbase was pushed to the very edge of despair. The team was headed down a tunnel without the hope of a redeeming light at the end. They were well on their way towards becoming a joke in the sports world and nobody in the MLB hierarchy seemed inclined to put this abuse to an end. 

The team operated like a small market club - no longer financially able to attract or afford high end talent - in ironically, the largest entertainment market the world over. Steve Cohen, the billionaire hedge fund guru, bought out the Wilpons and Saul Katz and became the proverbial knight in shining armor practically overnight. He was their last best hope that someday, this relatively young team born in 1962, would take its rightful place next to their older, more polished and historically revered rival and brother in the Bronx.  It’s often said that sometimes wishes really do come true, even if they come with a few caveats.  

It’s been a tough week for the New York Mets and their fans. Yes, that's quite purposely an understatement.  After winning 101 games last year and making the playoffs, the Mets have been slogging through a woeful 2023 season with a record well under .500. With a record high payroll of $364 million dollars, Billy Eppler, the General Manager of the team, under the direction of Cohen, realized the current situation was mathematically untenable, with the odds of making the playoffs somewhere around 12%, decided it was time to sell high. His aging veterans were still relatively healthy and had value - so he traded away two of its most talented, expensive and oldest players in Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, and a few others, for prospects.  To put all of this in a better perspective, let me try to explain the last 3 years in Metville.  

When Cohen became majority owner in 2020, he made a bold prediction and said that his plan was to have a world championship within 5 years.  Anything less than that, he would view as a failure.  This is apparently not a man who takes failure lightly or who it seems will accept anything short of a championship as a win.  He didn’t regurgitate the tired trope we hear so often from sports execs and owners who like to say it’s just about getting into the playoffs blah blah blah. No, this was straight up balls to the walls Steinbrenner talk.  No frills. No bullshit. And he was very willing to spend a king's ransom to get there. Whoa.

We all know how 2020 went down.  Covid hit and turned the professional sports world upside down just as it did to the rest of the world.  It seemed drama was organically attached to the Mets when Carlos Beltran was named their new manager but within days he was forced to resign after being tied to the infamous Houston Astros cheating scandal. The 2020 joke of a season was cut down to a mere 60 games and I dare anyone if they can remember who was crowned “champion” that year. It was a year we’d all love to forget for so many reasons, baseball being the least important of all. 

The 2021 season was something of a transitional year for Cohen as the team was slowly divesting itself from the Wilpon regime.  Many holdovers remained, including the former general manager and team president in Sandy Alderson, but little was done in the offseason to bolster the team in any meaningful way.  One of the main deficiencies from the Wilpon era was the lack of talent within the organization at all levels. The minor league system was devoid of prospects and considered one of the league's worst, having ranked near the very bottom in MLB. 

Steve Cohen knew he would have to spend to get this team right, and not just on the superstar free agents to fill the backpages of the New York tabloids. The big marquee names, that was the easy part, much like feeding red meat to the ravenous animals in the zoo, and he didn’t disappoint. On December 1st, 2021, the New York Mets signed future Hall of Fame pitcher, 37 year old Max Scherzer to a 3 year $130 million dollar contract, giving him the highest AAV of any player in the history of MLB.  Steve Cohen ladies and gentlemen, had arrived. 

It was probably one of the most exhilarating feelings I’ve ever had as a Met fan when I heard what Cohen had done. His decision to give Scherzer that much money, even if it was for just 3 years, forever changed free agency in MLB, and I’m sure the other 29 owners weren’t exactly jumping for joy. This was Cohen’s Waterloo; his Alamo. He was Gandalf, slamming his wooden staff into the ground, proclaiming it was a brand new day in Queens. Scherzer would be paired with Jacob deGrom, a one-two pitching punch the likes of which haven’t been seen in quite some time and certainly at least not at Citifield.  Then wouldn’t you know it, fate once again reared its ugly head. 

Jacob deGrom was shut down early in Spring Training with shoulder trouble, and it lasted for the majority of the 2022 season. Earlier in the year he made it known that at the end of the season he was going to opt out of his current contract and elect free agency. As a Met fan, it’s hard not to feel as if this team is perpetually snakebitten.  Would we ever get to see deGrom healthy again? If one believes in karma, you would think having shed the bad juju of the Wilpons would have afforded this team some respice. But, here we were, in August and finally watching deGrom make his season debut, smack dab in the middle of a heated pennant race against the Atlanta Braves.  The best writers in Hollywood wish they could pen a drama this intense, and it was just the beginning. 

Having already experienced a season ending collapse in 2007, you’d think something like that would be tough to repeat but, as much as I love them, we are talking about the New York Mets here.  On June 1st, of 2022, the Mets had a 10.5 game lead over the Atlanta Braves.  They maintained their first place status right up to the last weekend of the season when they lost three straight games to the Braves. Those last ten days of the season and that sweep, meant the Mets gifted themselves a second place finish with a spot as one of the National League’s three Wild Card teams.  Maybe this wasn’t an official collapse but ask a Met fan and they’ll tell you it sure felt like one. 

Needless to say, the team that won 101 games during the regular season, lost 2 out of 3 games to the San Diego Padres in the National League Wild Card. Essentially in a 2 to 3 week span of time the Mets went from being the cream of the crop in the National League Eastern Division, to being creamed. Like Yogi would say, “It was deja-vu all over again.”  Fans were in shock. The players were in shock.  I can only imagine the thought process of Steve Cohen at the time. It was a surreal feeling. Not quite the debacle of 2007 but a hybrid amalgam of it and to top it off, Jacob deGrom to his word, opted out of his contract with the Mets.  It was at that moment I knew this chapter in Queens was about to close. End scene.

On December 2nd, 2023, a little over one year from when the Mets made Max Scherzer the richest player (AAV) in MLB, Jacob deGrom signed a 5 year $185 million dollar contract with a 6th year team option, to play for the Texas Rangers.  Man this hurt. Losing deGrom felt like losing Seaver all over again but this time, it was the player doing the massacre. What was even more shocking, deGrom never gave the Mets an opportunity to counter the Ranger’s offer. At the time I didn’t understand why but like all wounds that need time to heal, this was no different. 

Being a fan means we can think irrationally about our players, especially those that are possibly looking to move on to greener ($) pastures.  We toss around crazy numbers in our minds, as if we were in Cohen’s shoes, hoping beyond hope that our favorite player will say yes to coming back but being a Met fan tempers our irrationality, which can be a blessing and very annoying at the same time. Five years with a sixth year team option for $185 million dollars, for a team that plays in a state with no state income tax, in a place deGrom actually prefers to raise his young family in, for a pitcher with his health history - well, what can you say other than best of luck and thank you for the memories, right?  No team, not the Mets, not the Yankees, not even the Dodgers would take such a risk giving deGrom a contract like that knowing his health history and I’m sure deGrom knew it and would have been a fool to not have taken it. Asking for a counter offer from the Mets would have been not just silly but downright disrespectful.

So once again here we were, kicked in the groin with how the season ended, all self-inflicted by the way, and now we were down arguably our best pitcher since Dwight Gooden.  Now what? How the hell do you replace Jacob deGrom? How can you really? Well, maybe. Billy Eppler and Cohen wasted no time and within a few days of losing Jake the team signed future Hall of Famer, the 39 year old Justin Verlander, to a two year contract worth $86.7 million with a vesting option for a third year at $35 million.  It would reunite Verlander with his former teammate Max Scherzer, who both played for the Detroit Tigers from 2010 to 2014.  Steve Cohen ladies and gents, strikes again.

So as the realization of losing Jacob deGrom set in and while we were licking our collective wounds, Uncle Stevie pulled a shocker once again out of his hat.  The fact that no team was really willing to give Verlander a contract quite like that speaks volumes. Yes, he was coming off a spectacular rebound season that earned him his 3rd career Cy Young award. Astonishing considering his age and that he was one year removed from having Tommy John surgery.  The Mets rolled the dice but left themselves with ample wiggle room, wiggle room that for better or worse, came into play in 2023.  

Now that you’re caught up, we can all see why both Scherzer and Verlander were offered massive yet short term contracts.  It wasn’t as if Eppler and Cohen were hoping for either to regress or for the team to fail, it was quite the opposite.  They were looking for that lightning in a bottle and unfortunately, it simply didn’t work out for a number of reasons.  The offense wasn’t what it was last year.  Sure, you can argue that the team needed to bolster that and almost did by signing Carlos Correa.  But look at what Correa is doing back in Minnesota.  He’s barely hitting over his weight with little power and yes, with the same wonky ankle that spooked the Mets and a few other suitors this past offseason.  Imagine if the Mets were under that contract as well right now.  They dodged the baseball gods on that one for sure. 

Another thing missing was the lack of cohesion in the clubhouse as SNY’s Steve Gelbs pointed out during a broadcast.  Last year during games you’d see the pitching staff hold impromptu analysis meetings, in game, after each start, sharing insights and details of what they faced.  That was nowhere to be seen this year.  Whether that was because Scherzer and Verlander weren’t the chummiest to begin with or the language barrier of Senga, it was noticeable. Small things like that can absolutely make a difference on a team especially at this level.

All in all, nothing has really gone the right way for the Mets in 2023.  So tell me this, what exactly is a master hedge fund guru known for? He knows when to fish and cut bait.  Don’t get me wrong, nobody has a crystal ball and can predict the future but Cohen does have an uncanny ability to see the landscape not for what he’d like it to be, but for what it is, and then to make a decisive move. Half measures obviously haven’t worked.  Dipping hard into the free agent pool without having a sustainable minor league system is like getting your car detailed but with a transmission that’s about to go. 

New York sports talk has been eviscerating Steve Cohen saying he’s no different from the Wilpons and that he should have given the team a chance being only 6 games out of the Wild Card. A chance? They’ve had their chance and it just didn’t work out, should we compound it by wasting an opportunity that’s staring the team right in the face?  Trading Scherzer, Verlander, Canha and Pham, took brass balls the likes of which Brian Cashman wishes he had. I shouldn't be so hard on him because once again the X factor is Steve Cohen.  If it weren’t for Cohen’s ability to absorb the money owed to those players, the Mets would have never been able to acquire the talent they did.  What Eppler did in a few days, normally takes teams many years of losing and hopefully drafting well at the same time. 

The Mets luxury tax penalty for 2023 is now at $101 million.  They gave the Astros $54 million to offset Verlander’s salary, $36 million went to the Rangers for Max.  If you include the contracts for Brian McCann, Tommy Pham and Mark Canha, the Mets have close to $210 million dollars in dead money, money for players no longer on this team.  Think about that the next time Bobby Bonilla day comes around and you want to bitch about that.  That’s what the Wilpons gave us. What Cohen did by opening his checkbook, literally no professional sports owner has ever done, in the history of planet Earth.

There’s no guarantee the players the Mets acquired will become the next stud(s) of the game.  In fact there’s probably a 2 to 3% percent chance that they will make the upper echelons of a franchise. Why? Because…hard. It’s also expensive and the players need to be developed.  Having a diamond in the rough is nice but if you don’t have a good jeweler to cut it properly, then all it is is a very expensive rock. If there is anything we all should have learned by now when it comes to Steve Cohen, he doesn’t waste his time or his money and he’s very willing to change the course when needed.  

The next two months are going to be hard. Honestly, I’m not going to watch the games as religiously the remainder of this year.  Some might say that’s very fairweather of me, and that’s fine. You do you. I do have hope for this team but the wise words of Peter Cetera once said, “Everybody needs a little time away, just for a day, from each other…” and I need it. I expect Cohen to be very active in the free agent market next year in spite of some of the contradictory statements.  Will he be in on Ohtani? Maybe. But the word is that Ohtani prefers the west coast.  But I wouldn’t be the least shocked he goes after one or two free agent pitchers, including Urias from the Dodgers. We’ll see. 

I’ll leave you with this.  It’s ok to take a break from this team.  We all need time to regroup and recharge and to quote another wise prognosticator,

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