PORT ST. LUCIE — Steve Cohen suggested right upfront when he bought the Mets that he saw the perennially excellent Dodgers as an orange-and-blueprint for his own team. But, as things stand today, the 2024 Mets have mostly one thing in common with the LA team: Yep, it’s the enormous payroll.
The Mets and Dodgers rank first and second in player spending and are two of only three teams, along with the crosstown rival Yankees, above the fourth-tier luxury-tax threshold. That rare air is commonly called “Steve Cohen tax” territory — that’s the very tariff designed by his 29 rivals to keep Cohen’s spending reasonable (obviously, results are mixed on that score so far).
The new megastar Dodgers roster, with Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Mookie Betts, is being compared to the Beatles out in Arizona and costs $321 million, according to Cots Baseball contracts. Despite far lower expectations, the Mets are slightly higher at $329M.
Cohen is an exceedingly bright man — there’s no other way to honestly amass an estimated $20 billion fortune! — who to his credit wants very badly to win. So it’s frankly shocking his team is in the position it’s in, even if it’s only for a year, which it very likely is. At least for 2024, they look like a very average team with a very bloated payroll, which would be a record if not for the $350M he spent last year.
It’s somewhat mysterious — at least to me — that they are in this unenviable position. (More on that below.)
But let’s try to inject some positivity, at least on Day 1.
Cohen’s Mets surely have an extremely bright future, with new baseball president David Stearns’ baseball mind and Cohen’s mind and his moolah, which will inevitably lead to better things ahead. However, the issue for today is how they’ll get through 2024.
Stearns, in his camp opening press conference Monday, fairly called it “understandable” why folks don’t have the Mets up there with the Braves and Phillies. (And don’t forget they finished well behind the Marlins in 2023). Stearns couldn’t possibly go there, but he did say something very interesting when he opined, “We expect to be a good team. We expect to compete for a playoff spot and have exciting baseball in Citi Field in September and October.”
Stearns is a wordsmith who chooses his phrasing precisely, but he did say October. The home portion of the regular season ends Sept. 22, so if he didn’t specifically predict the playoffs, that comment seemed to imply it. It certainly was a nice step up from the old Fred Wilpon line about playing meaningful games in September.
I liked hearing it.
I’m not sure I share that optimism.
Stearns improved the defense and bulked up the depth enough to rise to middle of the pack. October baseball can’t be ruled out considering the expanded playoff performance. But maybe only a few folks beside him actually expect it.
If the goal was to be competitive and maintain flexibility with ultra-short deals, they made worthwhile moves. Their defense and their depth look significantly improved. Overall, they seem solid, maybe even solid plus.
Luis Severino could be outstanding for $13M if he can stay health and stop tipping pitches (with his stuff, that had to be an issue).
Sean Manaea is a nice buy at $28M for two years — if he can duplicate his finish last year with the Giants.
Harrison Bader improves the defense.
Jake Diekman is the second veteran lefty they needed.
The Adrian Houser trade was so one-sided it seems like a parting gift from Stearns’ old Brewers team.
This isn’t exactly what Mets fans were expecting when they acquired the richest owner in MLB, certainly not in Year 4, which happens to be the penultimate year in Cohen’s stated five-year hope to win the World Series. The pressure seems to be on big-time for 2025.
But the question has to be asked: How did they even get to what has to be described as a transitional year in 2024?
The deals for Max Scherzer ($130M, three years), Justin Verlander ($86.7M, two years, plus a vesting option) and James McCann ($42M, four years) in particular — two future Hall of Famers and a lifetime backup catcher who must be a better negotiator than player — put the Mets in a big bind. Cohen wound up paying most of those deals when he traded all three. The best way to decipher exactly where it went wrong is to follow the money, or in their case the dead money.
In Cohen’s first three years the Mets made a lot of well-intentioned decisions that seemed wise (or at least they did at the time). However, the all-time financial whiz wanted to win so badly he dug a financial hole that is unprecedented, and by some estimates reached a $200M loss in 2023. (Cohen has only admitted in past interviews the loss was “bigger than a bread box.”) Nobody can accept losing that much money, no matter how filthy rich. I can’t blame him a bit for this one-year pullback.