Friday, December 1 2023

NEW YORK — New York Mets owner Steve Cohen offered as much optimism as he could reasonably muster that his team will turn things around in time to salvage a postseason berth this year. But while Cohen is hopeful — as a Mets fan and as a man who has made it no secret that he’s losing money on the team’s record payroll — he is neither delusional nor prone to sugarcoating. He didn’t get to the position where he could afford to buy a franchise by being unable to make clear-eyed assessments and the difficult decisions they often necessitate.

“We’re not playing well,” Cohen said Wednesday in a meeting with the media at Citi Field. “I don’t care if it’s 16.5 or 14.5 or 8.5 [back], it’s terrible. That’s not what I expected.”

There’s still technically time for the Mets — currently fourth in the NL East and owners of the fourth-worst record in the National League — to surge into the kind of contention that might merit augmenting the major-league club for a stretch run. But with every day closer to the Aug. 1 trade deadline, that seems less and less likely. And if they don’t make up ground in the next month?

“If I’m in this position, I’m not adding,” Cohen said. “I mean, I think that would be pretty silly.”

‘We’ll figure out what went wrong and then figure out how to fix it’

“Selling,” to use the binary oversimplification about the deadline, one season after the team won 101 games would seem to suggest a downward trajectory in the near future as far as contention goes. Trading major-league talent for prospects means resetting, at least to some extent.

“Obviously, you want to stay competitive. You still want to take advantage of opportunities,” Cohen said. “Once again, it’s a case-by-case situation. I haven’t really developed my thinking on that. If it turns out we don’t improve, and I’m looking at ‘24 with a similar team one year older, for a veteran team? Probably not a great place to be.


“Like I said, my druthers would be that we’re not faced with that situation.”

Such is the corner the Mets painted themselves into by spending big in free agency to build the third-oldest lineup and the oldest rotation in baseball — both of which have thus far underperformed nearly across the board. Cohen indicated that should a sell-off be necessary, in service of a shorter turnaround, he’s prepared to pay the hefty salaries of outgoing contracts in order to get a better prospect return — as was the case in the recent Eduardo Escobar trade.

“I already consider the money spent,” he said.

When an expensive team falls short of expectations in the early part of the season, frustrated fans often call for the manager or top executive to lose their jobs. It’s a Hail Mary that is hard to assess in terms of actual impact, but owners have limited recourse to engineer an in-season jolt. Through the lens of a 36-43 record, it’s not difficult to find flaws with general manager Billy Eppler’s roster construction and manager Buck Showalter’s stewardship in the face of mounting scrutiny. Still, Cohen offered an assurance that both men would “absolutely” remain in their jobs through the end of the season.


And beyond?

“Anytime you end up with fourth place, to sit and do nothing is probably not a great place to be,” Cohen said. “We’ll figure out what went wrong and then figure out how to fix it.”

That makes it seem like perhaps the Mets owner is prepared to punt on this season rather than take drastic measures with no guarantee of return. And Cohen was explicit about why he is prioritizing loyalty to his staff at this juncture: “If you want to attract good people to this organization, the worst thing you can do is be impulsive.”

‘If you want to hire great talent, they just don’t show up’

If there is any solace to be found for Mets fans teetering on the edge of abject agony inspired by the all-too-familiar feeling of being let down by their baseball team, it’s in Cohen’s evidently unwavering focus on the big picture. About halfway through his third season as the controlling owner of the Mets, Cohen repeatedly referenced patience — that he is a patient man, that he needs to be patient — in the the face of how long it takes: to build a modern baseball organization, to develop the kind of home-grown talent that allows for roster flexibility, to find and hire the right person to lead his baseball operations department.


Cohen said he was “lucky” to find Eppler ahead of last season. Before that, the GM role had been briefly filled by Jared Porter, dismissed for sexual harassment allegations, and Zack Scott, arrested for a DUI while interim GM. But at the outset of that search, Cohen had expressed a preference to hire a president of baseball operations first, a person who could build out a department from there. Even after Eppler’s hiring, there was an expectation that someone could be hired above him. Now, Cohen is making that plan explicit.

“I’ve been clear from day one that I’m still looking for a president of baseball ops,” Cohen said. “Billy knows that. I’ve had that conversation with him. He’s supportive.”

And because MLB’s hiring policies make it difficult to hire away from other teams — especially top executives — that search remains ongoing.

“If you want to hire great talent, they just don’t show up. And so I’ve been patient because I do not want to make a mistake,” Cohen said. “I can’t tell you if it’s going to be this year — I don’t know. Or if it’s gonna be next year — I don’t know. But at some point, that’s going to happen.”

‘And so, we’re behind’

That it hasn’t yet underscores how relatively new the Steve Cohen era of Mets baseball still is. Major-league teams are merely the very visible tip of the iceberg when it comes to baseball franchises. Their success is often contingent on organizational depth and player development initiatives that take years to yield results. Icebergs are slow to change direction.


To illustrate this, Cohen considered the starting rotation. He tried to give his team an edge by employing the two highest-paid players in the sport: a couple of established aces in Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, who are 40 and 38, respectively, and who have let the team down as often as they’ve delivered this season.

Top-end pitching is especially expensive, and the Mets have had to shop for nearly all of their starters. Of the nine pitchers who have made at least one start for the team this year, only three were originally drafted or signed by New York.

“We haven’t really developed that many pitchers, which is actually pretty shocking. I mean, we’re certainly capable of doing it,” Cohen said. “We may not have had the right infrastructure in place. Like, we just opened up our pitching lab. Well, guess what? Other teams had pitching labs six, seven, eight years ago. And so, we’re behind.”

Cohen knew this coming in, and so did savvy Mets fans. The plan all along was to transition a longstanding punchline of a franchise into a perpetual-motion machine able to add selectively from the free-agent market, akin to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The largess was supposed to buy the team early access to contention.

If that doesn’t work, fans shouldn’t be worried because Steve Cohen wasted his money; they should be worried because the process of building a contender from scratch has just barely begun.

Source: Yahoo Sports


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