KANSAS CITY — Steve Cohen didn’t become a billionaire by letting his emotions dictate how he runs a business. When the Mets tumbled to the bottom of the standings this season, he gave them enough runway to get the plane off the ground.
The Mets failed to do so and the owner made the difficult decision to open the team up for business ahead of the trade deadline.
Cohen went to Kansas City on Wednesday, one day after the trade deadline, to assuage the fears of the players that will be around long after this season. The Mets will be competitive in 2024, he insisted, much as his general manager did after the deadline passed.
“I’m surprised you’d be surprised,” Cohen said Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium. “What did I say? I said I wanted sustainability and that if we were in the same position I wasn’t going to add.”
The Mets added to the farm system by subtracting veteran pitchers David Robertson, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, outfielders in Mark Canha and Tommy Pham and journeyman reliever Dominic Leone. They also got two relievers from the Los Angeles Dodgers for cash.
Cohen saw the Mets’ odds of getting into the playoffs and decided he’d seen enough.
“When you look at the probabilities, we were at 15 percent, and other teams are getting better,” Cohen said. “You have to take the odds down from that. And so, if you’re gonna have a 12 percent chance of just getting into the playoffs, those are pretty crummy odds. I wouldn’t want to be betting any money on that. I don’t think anybody else would either.”
Instead, the Mets used those contracts to “buy” prospects, in a sense. Paying down the salaries of the players they traded allowed them to get better prospects. This isn’t unprecedented, but the rate at which the Mets did it was.
Typically, a team takes on the contract of the player they are acquiring. It allows the selling team to shed payroll and allocate money toward free agency or player development. But Cohen saw those contracts as “dead money.” In his mind, the money was as good as paid, so he was willing to keep paying those salaries if it meant better prospects in return.
In 2017, the Mets refused to retain salary when they traded away several veterans for four relievers. Only Drew Smith remains in the big leagues. The returns were much different.
“I would have kept the players if it turned out it was going to be mediocre return,” Cohen said. “So that was the opportunity. It turned out that it was a moment in time when other clubs are thinking very short-term and I was thinking more intermediate-term, so I was able to take advantage.”
Cohen is happy with the job Eppler did, though he still plans to hire a president of baseball operations. The Daily News previously reported that the Mets are eyeing Milwaukee Brewers’ advisor David Stearns for that role.
“Billy’s done great, as you witnessed at the trade deadline,” Cohen said. “I think Billy did a phenomenal job.”
The plan has always been for Eppler to work underneath a president of operations. It also sounds like the Mets are planning to bring back manager Buck Showalter for the final year of his contract, though Cohen stopped short of guaranteeing that.
“I don’t put it on Buck, I put it on the players,” Cohen said. “I think we’re hitting some bad luck and I think some things that happened were probably just the opposite of last year. It’s kind of unfair to be putting it on the manager. I think that’s unfair.”
The Mets are using 2024 as a “transition year,” so keeping the four-time Manager of the Year around makes sense. The Mets have had little stability over the years. Outfielder Brandon Nimmo has played for four managers since 2016, and that’s not counting Carlos Beltran, who was fired before he ever managed a game. “Sustainability” isn’t just about the farm system.
“Buck is working hard,” Cohen said. “I’ve got a three-year contract and we’re a little over a year and a half into it. We’re status quo.”
The term “competitive” might be up for debate. Eppler didn’t elaborate on it when he talked about his vision for 2024. It might mean winning 85 games instead of 100. Cohen doesn’t want an unwatchable product on the field.
The Mets still plan to be active in free agency, but they may not be going after the marquee names this season.
“Max asked me straight, ‘Are you going to be all in free agency next year?’ And I couldn’t give him that promise. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to bring in free agents, but it may not be to the extent that we did in the past.”