Wednesday, March 22 2023

New York Mets owner Steve Cohen, who just completed his second season with the team, has been in win-now mode since the moment he forked over $2.4 billion to purchase the club. 

After the Mets’ early exit in the postseason, losing to the San Diego Padres in the best-of-three Wild Card series and becoming the first 100-win team to fail to reach the Division Series, handfuls of their key players were soon-to-be free agents. In fact, the 2022 Mets have more free agents than any other team this winter, which does not bode well for a team looking to repeat their recent regular-season success. 

Cohen, a lifelong Mets fan and a hedge fund guru with a $17.5 billion net worth, is facing a major revamp of his roster this offseason. So, with big aspirations and little time to lose, Mets general manager Billy Eppler and Cohen entered this year’s Hot Stove with a list of priorities. 

We were not even one full day into this newborn offseason before Mets brass checked off the first item on that list. Just over 17 hours after the final out of the World Series, Mets closer Edwin Diaz and the Mets had agreed to a record-breaking five-year, $102 million contract to keep him in Queens. Diaz’s contract is the highest for a reliever in Major League Baseball history.

But that was just the first domino. The Mets still have a deserted bullpen, four vacant slots in the rotation behind Max Scherzer, key homegrown players currently exploring the open market, and a slugging problem. Without further ado, let’s dive deeper into the Mets’ offseason priorities.

1. Fill the rotation — with or without ace Jacob deGrom

If you’re surprised that a deal like Diaz’s didn’t come together just as instantaneously for deGrom, don’t be. In fact, a deal may not come together at all for deGrom and the Mets. They certainly want to re-sign deGrom, but the ace is prioritizing a multi-year contract and it remains unclear whether he’ll get that kind of deal with his homegrown team. And even if deGrom does ink a contract with the Mets, a deal like that is expected to take ample time to come together.

The problem for the Mets when they entered the offseason was that four-fifths of their 2022 rotation became free agents, including Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker, Carlos Carrasco and deGrom. Then they picked up the $14 million team option on Carrasco. So, as of Monday, Scherzer, Tylor Megill, David Peterson and Carrasco represent their starting pitching options. While that is a solid collection of arms, one can comfortably wager that that will not be the team’s Opening Day rotation come March. 

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The Mets’ dance with deGrom will dictate how they fill out the remainder of their rotation. If deGrom re-signs, the club’s payroll will be expected to exceed  $300 million and it becomes less likely that the Mets will spend big on any other pitchers, including their own free-agent starters. 

But if deGrom walks, it’s more likely the Mets will bring back Walker and Bassitt while also potentially signing a top-of-the-line free-agent starter, like Justin Verlander or Carlos Rodon. And it’s no sure thing that either of those elite arms will still be available for the taking by the time deGrom makes a decision. Thus, the speed and manner in which the Mets fill out their rotation will be tricky, indeed.

2. Re-sign center fielder Brandon Nimmo

Nimmo is a hot commodity in a thin free-agency class for center fielders. His .800 OPS, 5.1 bWAR (baseball-reference WAR) and much-improved 6 OAA, a defensive metric that analyzes how many outs a player has saved, make him an expensive leadoff-hitting free agent who will have plenty of options. 

Scott Boras, Nimmo’s new agent, touted the outfielder’s irreplaceable performance and makeup at last week’s GM Meetings.

“There are no center fielders in our game that are available,” Boras told reporters in Las Vegas. “And then you add leadoff to that and then you add on-base percentage to that, and he’s an excellent defender — and then also he can play in New York. When you have those elements that are there, he becomes a very integral part of what we found for a team to win 100 games.” 

Related: Brandon Nimmo ranks fifth in FOX Sports’ ranking of the top 30 MLB free agents

Now that Diaz’s five-year deal is secured, re-signing Nimmo may be the Mets’ highest priority. But Eppler has already advertised a backup plan should Nimmo sign elsewhere. The Mets would shift right fielder Starling Marte to center field and either look for an addition to fill out the outfield, or move second baseman Jeff McNeil to right field and pick up an infielder. The Mets have already extended a $19.65 million qualifying offer to Nimmo, so if he signs elsewhere, the club will receive a compensatory draft pick.

3. Lock down relief help 

Much like the majority of their rotation is exploring the open market, the Mets bullpen also saw prominent relievers hit free agency. Adam Ottavino, Trevor May, Seth Lugo, Trevor Williams, Joely Rodriguez, Tommy Hunter and Mychal Givens are all free agents. Besides Diaz, the only sure thing currently left in the relief corps is Drew Smith

It would be in the Mets’ best interest to bring back one, if not two, relief arms in that free-agent group (looking at you, Adam Ottavino). But expect the front office to be extremely active in free agency just to field a full bullpen. Cohen, Eppler, manager Buck Showalter and the Mets want to repeat and build on their 101-win season, but the path to doing so will require filling the numerous holes in their bullpen before the ball even gets to Diaz. 

Alas, the deals for relievers like Rafael Montero, who just re-signed with the Astros on a three-year, $34.5 million contract, and Robert Suarez, who also just signed a five-year, $46 million contract extension with the Padres, suggest that it will be very pricey to acquire an impact relief arm out of free agency. For the Mets, it’s a good thing they have an owner who is willing to spend, but even Cohen has his limits.

4. Hold on to top prospects

Look no further than Eppler’s 2022 trade-deadline moves, or lack thereof, to understand how deeply Cohen and his front office are prioritizing the club’s farm system. Eppler made only slight improvements to the roster as he refrained from trading away top prospects, though lacking those necessary reinforcements was, in part, why the Mets fell short in the playoffs. Then, in a news conference that took place five days after the Mets’ promising season abruptly ended, Eppler again expressed satisfaction in keeping the organization’s “top 19 prospects.” 

Back in Nov. 2020, Cohen pledged to Mets fans that he would try to build a perennial winner, but accomplishing that challenging task would require a deep farm system. Two years into his ownership, the Mets are still, according to Eppler, at least a few years out from Cohen’s stated goal. 

The team’s long-term objective is to replace free agents with major-league players, much like how the Los Angeles Dodgers operate, and reaching that point requires holding on to prospects at junctures like these — in the offseason and at the trade deadline. So expect the Mets to continue that approach this winter. Eppler will spend Cohen’s money to fill out the roster much more frequently than he will engage in trades with other team executives.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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