Sunday, October 18, 2020

A Hero Is Not Required

As we get closer and closer to Steve Cohen taking over the New York Mets, we also get closer to finally getting concrete answers on how the Mets might operate under his stewardship. Those of us who follow the team closely grew to be able to predict quite accurately how things would go when the Wilpons were running things. Hell, I only wish they would have surprised me a little more often. I always expected the worst from them and they almost always delivered. Cohen, on the other hand, is an unknown at this point. There is plenty of speculation on what he might do, based on what is known about how he runs his hedge fund business, but nobody will really know exactly how things will go until we get to see the Cohen owned Mets in action.

In a way, that's pretty convenient for projecting your own feelings of how the Mets should be run onto all of that unknown. Hey, it would be really smart if the Mets did this thing. Cohen is a really smart guy, so I'm sure they will do that thing once he's running the show. I've indulged in that kind of thinking plenty on this blog. I try to base it as much as possible on factual information, such as what we can read about his business philosophy now, but I can't pretend to have any special insight into the guy. One thing's for sure, though. For someone who cares about Mets baseball as much as I do, and has spent decades watching the Wilpons muck things up so completely, it's a healthy dose of sweet fresh air to indulge in fact-based hope on things being done the right way at last.

When articles come out like Mike Puma's in the New York Post last week, "Steve Cohen to blow up Wilpons' 'archaic' Mets technology", it feeds that need in me to project intelligence and competence into future Mets moves. A big takeaway from the piece is that sources are telling Puma that Cohen expects to lose about $400 million on the team over the first two years of his ownership. That alone is a good reason for Cohen to have been selected out of all the bids to buy the team.

After Cohen was selected to enter into sole negotiations to buy the club, Alex Rodriguez said that his group had set $300 million aside that wasn't part of the purchase price to cover losses and ensure that the Mets could run higher payrolls at the beginning. But given the tough financial situation the Mets were in before the pandemic hurt, the resulting losses from this strange season without fans, and the continued uncertainty for at least next season, that might have been a tough thing for his group to do while taking on so much debt just to buy the club. I worried that if A-Rod's group came out on top there would have been a huge temptation for them to put what money they did have into obvious fan-facing places such as payroll, while potentially ignoring so many of the other places that the Wilpons left the Mets deficient.

We just witnessed a couple of great playoff series wrap up last night. The two teams that came up on top, the Rays and the Dodgers, built success on having a tremendous team organization that enables them to draft and develop well and make smarter choices when they sign major league players, too. Of course, they differ greatly in how much money they have at their disposal to spend on the major league roster, which led them to quite different routes to eventual success. Still, the overall intelligence and sheer competence driving both clubs is something that Mets fans could only look at with envy under Wilpon ownership. The lesson learned from so many years with Fred and Jeff calling the shots was that there was virtually zero hope that the Mets could replicate those efforts.

When you look at the Braves, the team that took the Dodgers to a 7th game but wound up falling short, you see another team that. at least currently, is way better set up to win in upcoming seasons than the Mets. Really, at least right now, so are the Marlins. The Phillies have had some problems taking the talent they have developed and supplementing it properly with the right additional pieces, but even now have to be at least on an equal footing with the Mets going forward. Whichever of the two clubs makes smarter moves over upcoming seasons is likely to come out ahead. And even the Nationals, who are clearly in need of a rebuild in the short term, have some really exciting young players to build a new contender around. The Nats also have been better run than the Mets in recent years.

With the Marlins no longer being run as a scam to defraud the city of Miami and the game of baseball, the Mets were in real danger of being the worst team in the NL East over the next couple of seasons, maybe longer, particularly if Washington avoids a full rebuild. The franchise was essentially screaming out for someone to ride in and save them from that fate. Only a new owner with plenty of cash, a real desire to win, and a penchant for seeking to run his business with forward-thinking intelligence was going to interrupt that descending trajectory the Mets were on.

That's precisely why Steve Cohen is being looked at with so much hope by people like myself who really care about what happens here. It wasn't bad luck that has held the Mets down for so long, it was short-sighted, backward-looking management by folks who had absolutely no clue at all how to change things for the better.

A friend was teasing me recently about Steve Cohen, asking me if I thought Cohen was a "good guy", and if I believed the multi-billionaire actually cared about me personally. My answers were, respectively, I don't care and of course not. I'm not looking for a personal hero, I'm looking for someone to do a really good job of running the baseball team that I've spent almost all of my life rooting for since I lack the personal fortune required to buy the club and do it myself. The rest is inconsequential to me. That's why the trolling stuff written about Cohen negatively doesn't phase me at all. If I feel the need for a personal hero and/or someone who cares about me, I'll look elsewhere. As for Cohen, I truly suspect that how much time we spend talking about him in upcoming years will decrease in direct proportion to how well the club seems to be run. I, personally, look forward to writing about team success rather than trying to divine if the organization is being run correctly.

The idea that he is prepared to lose $400 million - which is hardly chump change even to a very, very rich guy - in his first couple of years as owner, signals to me that he sees the handwriting on the wall for where the Mets are headed without a big-time overhaul in everything that they do. Yeah, there's some talent on the major league roster, and a few potential high-impact prospects in the system currently, but not the quantity required to compete with more talent-rich and better-run clubs both within their division and in the rest of the National League. There's a lot of work to do, and doing it right will pay dividends far beyond the undeniably huge cash outlays required to right the ship. It's a smart investment from a guy who has a pretty good track record in investing smartly.

So, please forgive me if I talk about some of this stuff quite often. It freaking matters, and the Wilpons' continuous failure to see this clearly is the one overarching reason why even modest sustain success always eluded them - and, by extension, us.


Ken Davidoff had a pretty good piece in the New York Post yesterday. He asked the hypothetical question how Steve Cohen might react the first time he has to bail on a big-salaried free agent who is failing to even justify a continued roster spot. He cites as examples the Angels continuing to keep Albert Pujols on the club and the Tigers similarly sticking with Miguel Cabrera. With 3 more seasons of Robinson Cano on the books, this question might come up in the next year or two.

I do agree with Davidoff that it is foolish for a team to pay someone not to produce, taking at-bats away from someone else who deserves a chance, or at least forcing a club to go forward and get a better player there. This is an endless source of discussion around baseball. The money is spent, anyway, you're really only compounding the hurt by continuing to run a bad, washed-up player out there. In the case of Cano, I take little comfort from the short-season success he had this year. He'll be 38, 39, and 40 over those three seasons, and things can go bad quickly at that age.

Frankly, I also question whether he simply found a more effective masking agent to hide his use of PEDs to return to success as a hitter. It's not fair to accuse him of this without evidence, but I do believe that people who have already cheated are likely to cheat again. It wouldn't shock me at all if Cano tested positive again for something in the next 3 years. If that did happen, the Mets should absolutely cut him loose and absorb the remainder of his post-suspension contract. Even if that doesn't happen, players heading into their 40s can drop off a cliff at any time. Until the contract concludes after 2023, there will always be a danger of Cano becoming a liability.

The larger point here, however, is that these decisions don't happen in a vacuum. Cano is here because Van Wagenen purposely traded for him in a questionable deal that had more red flags than a Soviet military parade. Cabrera is still with Detroit because they chose to sign him to a long-term deal that was bound to be pretty bad at the end in order to keep him on the roster when was still a great hitter and they were trying to win a World Series title. Pujols is the most questionable decision of all, as he was already heading into decline. Arte Moreno, the Angels' owner, is the type of egotistical idiot that I was praying we wouldn't get here.

I would certainly expect more of the Mets under Cohen's ownership than to pursue a Pujols-type deal or even a trade for an older guy like Cano. Honestly, even the Cabrera deal, giving an 8-year contract to a guy who was already 33 is something that a smart team should avoid. Cabrera will be 42 when that one runs out in 2025 and hasn't been a really good hitter since the first year of the deal. I don't think it's a deal that a really smart club makes, period.

We all dislike the Yankees, but I think you have to give them credit for being very well-run. But their decision to take on Giancarlo Stanton into his late 30s really surprised me. When he's healthy and right, he's a great hitter, but to take on such a highly-paid, injury-prone right-handed hitter for so many years was highly questionable to me. I think part of the reason they went there was because they felt like they needed to make a big move that offseason, and the deal feels like the sort of mistake I hope the Mets will avoid. Smart decisions on who to sign, for how much, and how long, will at least minimize the number of those decisions.

No doubt not every move going forward will pan out for the Mets, and there will be players under contract where they might have to decide to cut bait on a non-productive performer. I hope they make the correct decision in those cases. We'll just have to see.

By the way, Davidoff reports that the decision on Cohen might take place shortly after the World Series. We've heard that from other sources recently, and can only hope that it's true. As I've said, there's a ton of work to be done to change the team's fortunes, and the sooner the people are in place to get it started, very much the better.

That will do it for me today. As always, thanks for stopping by. Please stay safe, be well and take care.

Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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