The Wilpon era is officially over for the New York Mets. The sale to new owner Steve Cohen officially closed Friday and baseball has a new wealthiest owner. Cohen, a lifelong Mets fan who’d been a minority owner in the team for years, has a reported net worth north of $14 billion. Nationals owner Mark Lerner had been the game’s previous wealthiest owner at $5 billion or so.

Cohen did not wait long to clean house. A few hours after the sale closed general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, special assistant Omar Minaya, assistant general managers Allard Baird and Adam Guttridge, and director of player development Jared Banner were all let go as Cohen and team president Sandy Alderson settled the “family business,” Corleone-style.

“I want to thank Brodie, Allard, Adam and Jared for their contributions over the last two years,” Alderson said in a statement. “I especially want to thank Omar for his long and distinguished service to the Mets in many important capacities.”

Building a new front office will be the first order of business for Cohen and Alderson and it’s been a long time since a job this desirable became available. You probably have to go back to the Dodgers hiring Andrew Friedman in Oct. 2014. The Mets have a new owner willing to invest, a talented roster, a great ballpark, and an improved farm system. What more could candidates want?

The Mets are expected to hire both a president of baseball operations and a general manager, according to Mike Puma of the New York Post, and also beef up an analytics staff that was far too small compared to the rest of MLB. Cohen made his fortune in hedge funds. He is all about using data to find advantages and there is no reason to think his baseball team will operate differently.

Now that the most important piece of business has been handled, what’s left for the Mets to do this offseason? Quite a bit, actually, and they figure to be among the most active teams in the sport this winter. Here’s a look at what’s on tap in Flushing.

How much do they have to spend anyway?

After running middle of the pack payrolls under the Wilpons for far too long, Cohen is expected to infuse the Mets with cash and raise payroll to a level commensurate with the team’s market. The pandemic and shutdown did not damage Cohen financially the same way it did MLB’s other owners. He’s obscenely wealthy and not feeling the squeeze either.

That said, we don’t know exactly how high Cohen is willing to raise payroll. The Mets went into 2020 with a projected $174.1 million full season payroll, so it stands to reason they will at least return to that level. With so many teams expected to cut payroll in 2021, simply getting back to 2020 levels is a win. The 2021 luxury tax threshold is $210 million. That could be in play for Cohen.

We don’t know exactly how much the Mets will spend next season but we do know what they have on the books already. Here are the team’s guaranteed contracts:

The Mets have just under $73 million tied up in five players, though their combined luxury tax hit comes in under $60 million thanks to deGrom. Luxury tax hits are based on the average annual value of multiyear contracts and deGrom’s deal is backloaded, which keeps his luxury tax number down these next few years.

According to MLB Trade Rumors, the Mets have 13 arbitration-eligible players projected to make a combined $46.3 million next season, though Guillermo Heredia ($1.3 million projected) and Steven Matz ($5.1 million) are obvious non-tender candidates. The remaining 11 players include core pieces like Michael Conforto, Edwin Diaz, Seth Lugo, and Noah Syndergaard.

The 11 arbitration-eligibles get the Mets to $99.255 million in luxury tax payroll for 16 players. Add in the $16 million or so each team contributes annually to player benefits (yes, it counts against the luxury tax) and $2 million to account for players on the 40-man roster but not the 26-man MLB roster (i.e. 40-man roster minor leaguers), and the actual luxury tax payroll is $117.255 million.

If Cohen is willing to spend up to the $210 million luxury tax threshold, then gosh, the Mets have a ton of payroll room to play with this offseason. They’ll have to leave some wiggle room for in-season injury call-ups and trade deadline additions, but still, the new front office may have upwards of $80 million to $85 million to play with this winter. That’s awfully exciting.

We know the Mets are willing to spend at least $18.9 million this offseason. They made Marcus Stroman the qualifying offer prior to last weekend’s deadline and they wouldn’t have tendered the offer unless they were prepared for Stroman to accept it. Stroman is “leaning toward” rejecting it, according to Puma, but it’s a significant sum. You don’t make an $18.9 million offer on a whim. 

My guess — and I emphasize this is just a guess — is the Mets will not jump all the way to the $210 million luxury tax threshold next season but instead a notch below that. Say $190 million or so. That would still represent a significant increase over this past year and rank them among the game’s highest payrolls, and they’d have quite a bit to spend this winter.

Figure out the catcher situation

While it is an exciting time for the Mets and their fans, I have to note this is a team that went 26-34 and finished in last place in the NL East in 2020. They were much better in 2019 though (86-76), and the core of a contending team is in place. Start a rotation with deGrom and a lineup with Conforto, Cano, Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, and Dominic Smith, and you’re in good shape.

Catcher is the club’s biggest weakness on the position player side. The Mets declined a $10 million club option for Wilson Ramos earlier this offseason and they have three catchers on the 40-man roster: Patrick Mazeika, Tomas Nido, and Ali Sanchez. Mazeika and Nido have some skills and could be solid backups, but none of three should start for a contender in 2021.

The obvious solution is J.T. Realmuto, the top free agent catcher and arguably the top free agent period. Realmuto, 30 in March, is the game’s best all-around catcher and his righty bat would add balance to a lineup that leans a little too left-handed at the moment. As an added bonus, signing Realmuto takes him away from the division rival Phillies. It’s a double whammy.

If the Mets are going to spend big on one free agent and one free agent only, it should be Realmuto. George Springer and Trevor Bauer are really good and really attractive to the Mets, but it’s much easier to plug center field and the middle of the rotation than it is to have the game’s best catcher. Good catchers rarely hit free agency. Realmuto is an obvious fit.

Should Realmuto sign elsewhere — Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia has reported Realmuto doesn’t want to play in New York, though that could be posturing (plus money changes everything) — free agent alternatives include Yadier Molina and James McCann. Here are the top 2021 WAR projections among free agent catchers (via FanGraphs):

  1. J.T. Realmuto: 4.6 WAR
  2. Yadier Molina: 1.8 WAR
  3. James McCann: 1.5 WAR
  4. Wilson Ramos: 1.5 WAR
  5. Mike Zunino: 1.4 WAR

Yeah, put the full court press on Realmuto. He makes the offense better and he makes the pitching staff better, and there’s no better place for Cohen to spend his money this offseason. Catcher is a clear problem area for the Mets and, Realmuto or otherwise, it is a top priority this winter. It’s too important a position to cut corners.

Get deGrom some help

For my money, deGrom is the best pitcher in baseball. Other guys put up comparable 2020 seasons (Bauer, Shane Bieber, etc.) but no one has matched his excellence the last few years. deGrom led all pitchers with 20.0 WAR from 2018-20. Aaron Nola and Max Scherzer were distant seconds at 16.3 WAR each. No other pitcher was over even 15 WAR the last three seasons.

The rotation behind deGrom leaves a lot to be desired, especially with Syndergaard unlikely to return from Tommy John surgery until the middle of 2021. And, even after Syndergaard does return, how effective will he be? It’s not unusual for a pitcher to need some time to get back to normal. Syndergaard may not be his pre-surgery self again until 2022.

Here is New York’s current rotation depth chart:

  1. Jacob deGrom (amazing)
  2. Noah Syndergaard (rehabbing from Tommy John surgery)
  3. Seth Lugo (6.15 ERA in seven starts in 2020)
  4. David Peterson (impressive rookie had a 3.44 ERA in 2020)
  5. Steven Matz (non-tender candidate after 9.68 ERA in 2020)
  6. Robert Gsellman (8.68 ERA in four starts in 2020)
  7. 😬

Others like Ariel Jurado, Corey Oswalt, and Nick Tropeano don’t move the needle much, if at all. I like Lugo and think he can be an effective starter if given a normal spring training to prepare rather than being thrust into the role at midseason like he was this year. Peterson has clearly earned a longer look, but ideally he is your high upside No. 5, not your trusted No. 3 in 2021.

The Mets need two starters this offseason plus other depth pieces to ensure guys like Gsellman and Oswalt don’t get thrust into the rotation next year. Stroman could return, either after accepting the qualifying offer or on a multi-year deal, and of course the Mets will be connected to Bauer, the market’s big name. Here are the top free agent starters by projected 2021 WAR (via FanGraphs):

  1. Trevor Bauer: 3.8 WAR
  2. Masahiro Tanaka: 3.0 WAR
  3. Corey Kluber: 2.7 WAR
  4. Charlie Morton: 2.7 WAR
  5. Marcus Stroman: 2.5 WAR
  6. Kevin Gausman: 2.5 WAR
  7. James Paxton: 2.4 WAR

No other free agent starter projects over 2 WAR and I have to say, those Kluber and Paxton projections seem awfully optimistic given their injuries. Kluber went down one inning into this past season with a significant lat tear, and Paxton looking nothing like himself between his February back surgery and his August flexor strain. Color me skeptical about those projections.

In recent years the Mets plugged their rotation with low upside brand name veterans (Rick Porcello, Jason Vargas, etc.) and, had the Wilpons remained in control, it would’ve been easy to see them signing guys like Chris Archer and Jose Quintana for $12 million combined and calling it an offseason. The Mets and their fans can dream bigger this winter.

Bauer is the big name and pairing him with deGrom would give the Mets a dynamic 1-2 punch. I also think there’s something to be said for avoiding the tippy top of the free agent pitching market — how eager are you to lock into a long-term arrangement with Bauer, truly? — and going shorter term with, say, Tanaka and Morton, or Stroman and Jake Odorizzi.

If catcher is priority No. 1 this offseason, then rotation help is priority No. 1B. The Mets need at least one starter (ideally two) to fill out their big league rotation, plus depth pieces to stash in Triple-A, because injuries happen, and the Mets haven’t always been able to weather those storms internally. They need No. 2 and 3 starters, and also better Nos. 6-8 starters.

Sort out the square pegs and round holes

Fun fact: the Mets led baseball with a 122 OPS+ this past season. They led baseball in batting average (.272), were second in on-base percentage (.348), and were fourth in slugging percentage (.459). And yet, the Mets were only 13th in runs per game (4.77). They weren’t truly awful with runners in scoring position (.245/.328/.406), so chalk it up to 60-game season weirdness.

The Mets have a good offense and a mismatched roster. Is Smith a first baseman or an outfielder? Is J.D. Davis a third baseman or an outfielder? Is Jeff McNeil a second baseman, a third baseman, or an outfielder? Is Brandon Nimmo is a viable center fielder? Versatility is a good thing! The Mets are playing guys out of position though. They’re not at positions they are suited to play.

The universal DH is not yet official but the cat is out of the bag, and it’s hard to see MLB going back to pitchers hitting. That will help the Mets quite a bit. Smith has worked hard in left field but he fits best at first base and DH, and it would be best to keep him there. Davis started last season in left before moving back to third, where he was surprisingly competent.

McNeil probably fits best at second base but is blocked by Cano. I think the optimal defensive alignment has Alonso and Smith at first base and DH, Cano at second, Davis at third, and McNeil in left. That pushes Nimmo to center, where he is stretched. The Mets turned only 68.4 percent of batted balls into out in 2020, fourth fewest in baseball. The defense is a real issue.

Offense is the Mets’ strength and you’d hate to subtract from it, but trading a hitter for a pitcher should not be dismissed. The Mets could look to flip Davis or Nimmo (or McNeil?) for a starter, which not only improves the rotation, but also clears up their defensive picture. You can’t give those guys away, of course, but trading one has to be on the table. The Mets have to listen, at least.

What about the trade market?

It is easy to spend Cohen’s money on free agents. Realmuto would look wonderful behind the plate, Bauer in the rotation, Springer in center field, so on and so forth. Don’t forget about the trade market though. Most teams will look to cut payroll this winter and that presents an opportunity to land talented players at discounted rates in salary dumps.

Among other things …

For all the talk about the Cubs trading Kris Bryant, what about Yu Darvish? He is owed $59 million through 2023 and that could be much more appealing than Bauer at his price. If the Mets miss out on Realmuto, a Darvish and Willson Contreras package deal would be quite the Plan B. Arenado at the hot corner would greatly improve the club’s offense and defense too.

The Mets are in position to prey on teams desperate to shed payroll. The Yankees and Brewers did this years ago with Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich, and the Dodgers did it last year when they poached Mookie Betts. They leveraged the other team’s financial situation into extremely favorable trade terms. The Mets have an opportunity to do the same.

Alderson and whoever he brings in to run the front office are smart enough to know they shouldn’t take on money just to take on money. That’s a recipe for regret. They can be opportunistic and leverage teams against each other, because there are going to be way more sellers than buyers this winter. Free agency is not the only way to capitalize on Cohen’s financial might.

What about contract extensions?

With deGrom locked up, Syndergaard needing to show he’s effective following elbow reconstruction, and many core players early in the team control years (Alonso, McNeil, Smith, etc.), the Mets only have one urgent extension candidate: Conforto, who is one year away from free agency. The soon-to-be 28-year-old hit .322/.412/.515 in 2020 and owns a career 128 OPS+. He’s an impact bat.

Conforto is a Scott Boras client, and while Boras is famous for taking his top clients out into free agency, Conforto has not ruled out a long-term deal with the Mets. Here’s what he told reporters, including MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo, back in February:

“Everyone always says that Scott is a big free-agency guy and he’s a big fan of that, but Scott … is obviously going to give me the best advice that he feels he has for me as a player and for my career,” Conforto said in February. “Ultimately, it’s my decision. I think it’s somewhat of a misconception about Scott and his clients. He wants what’s best for us. He’s going to give us his best advice. But at the end of the day, he’ll tell you, ‘It’s my client’s decision.”http://www.cbssports.com/” 

In September, Van Wagenen told reporters the two sides have had “preliminary conversations” and nothing more. Advancing those conversations will be among the first orders of business for the new front office. Springer’s upcoming contract will serve as a guide for a Conforto deal, though Springer is more than three years older, so Conforto could reasonably seek more.

Keep in mind the offseason is a slow time for extensions. Teams typically spend November, December, and the first half of January focusing on trades and free agency. It’s not until arbitration season arrives in mid January that teams get down to business locking up their players. February and March are when most extensions happen, so a new Conforto deal may be weeks away.


Now that Cohen officially controls the Mets, his first order of business will be constructing his new front office. From there, the club must address its catcher situation, add arms to the rotation, sort out the mismatching parts on the roster, and get serious about locking up Conforto. They figure to be active in free agency, but don’t rule out opportunistic trades either.

“This is a significant milestone in the history of this storied franchise,” Cohen said in a statement after the sale closed. “I want to thank everybody who helped make this happen. The 2021 season is right around the corner and we’ve got a lot of work to do, so I’m excited to get started. Let’s go Mets!”

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