The Mets once spent $91 million to give Mike Piazza the richest contract in major league history to that point. Steven Cohen, who signed an agreement this week to be the Mets’ new owner, spent $91 million last year on a three-and-a-half-foot rabbit, made of stainless steel, by the artist Jeff Koons.
The Piazza investment worked well for the Mets and the Wilpons, the team’s longtime owners, but the franchise long ago stopped spending at the top of the market. That philosophy almost certainly will change under Cohen, the hedge-fund billionaire who still needs approval from 23 of the other 29 owners to formally take over this fall.
The deal gives Cohen a 95 percent stake in the Mets, with a total valuation of about $2.4 billion. His background is hardly spotless, but because he was already a minority owner, with an 8 percent share, the vetting process is likely to be a formality. Commissioner Rob Manfred and his predecessor, Bud Selig, must be thrilled to have the Mets on solid financial ground after supporting the Wilpons through their entanglements with the notorious Bernard L. Madoff and his Ponzi scheme.
With a net worth of $14.6 billion, according to Forbes, the 64-year-old Cohen will be the richest owner in baseball. As a lifelong Mets fan, he is probably eager to make his mark. That is good news for free agents like Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, Houston Astros outfielder George Springer and Cincinnati Reds starter Trevor Bauer — all free agents after this season. But is it good news for Mets fans?
The short answer is yes; more money means more choices. But consider the American League West, where two franchises — the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels — mirror the Mets as the second team in a major market.
The A’s will soon clinch their sixth playoff berth in the last nine seasons. In that same period, the Angels have made the playoffs just once, despite significantly outspending Oakland every year.
The Angels’ owner, Arte Moreno, spent $240 million for a decade of Albert Pujols’ decline. He gave up $125 million for five years of Josh Hamilton, who hit more home runs the season before he arrived in California than he did throughout that contract. Last December, Moreno splurged for Anthony Rendon (seven years, $245 million), and while Rendon has played well, the team has gotten worse.
The A’s, of course, are famous for shrewd, low-cost moves by Billy Beane, who has worked for three owners without much change in payroll. That is how he likes it.
“Billy used to say to me all the time: ‘I would never want your job in New York, because you have to consider things that I would never consider, because you have money,’” Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager, said on Tuesday. “Not having money protects you from the expensive mistake. All you can look for are better values, and it lowers the expectations.”
Phillips called the Mets the toughest team to own in all of professional sports, because fans expect the same level of success as the Yankees, but the teams operate with different budgets. Like many teams, he said, the Mets’ owners projected to break even and based their payroll on expected revenue.
“Most owners have a lot of money from another business, but they don’t just say, ‘Well, I’m going to run everything else like a business, but I’m just going to spend like crazy on the baseball team,’” Phillips said. “Most people who made money in business run all of their businesses like a business. They go to a certain level and they say no.”
That could be a challenge for Cohen. Agents will surely try to leverage his extraordinary wealth into lavish contracts for their clients. Nearly every free agent seems like a cure-all in the moment, and fans and the news media will be critical whenever the Mets lose the bidding on a talented player.
Whether or not Cohen retains General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen, his baseball operations department will have to be cunning. The No. 1 teams in the two biggest markets — the Yankees and the Dodgers — had the most victories in the 2010s, yet it has not been spending alone that has made them successful.
In his previous job, with the innovative but poorly funded Tampa Bay Rays, Andrew Friedman watched Brian Cashman, the general manager of the division-rival Yankees, create a nimbler operation that could spend big when needed. Friedman applied those lessons to the Dodgers, whose baseball operations he has run for six seasons.
“I think a lot of times he doesn’t get the credit that he should, because of their resources,” Friedman said of Cashman this spring. “They’ve been so effective at finding diamonds in the rough and undervalued players, and they’ve been aggressive mining all different avenues of player procurement. He’s not just sitting back and writing a big check — but, obviously, he has the ability to do that and generally picks very wisely.
“Having the chance to compete against him directly, I watched him evolve into that, and it was terrifying in the moment to realize what they were doing.”
With the Dodgers, Friedman has steadily coaxed low-cost, high-impact production from prospects like Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler, as well as players undervalued by other teams, like Justin Turner and Max Muncy. Then, this summer, he spent $365 million to lock up Mookie Betts on a 12-year contract extension.
When the Dodgers acquired Betts in a February trade with Boston, they assumed a large portion of the money the Red Sox owed pitcher David Price, allowing them to trade a lesser package of players. Think of the Mets trading for Robinson Cano from Seattle but absorbing more of his contract in order to keep a top prospect out of the deal. That kind of strategy helps the Dodgers perpetuate success.
“They’re not exclusively Moneyball; they’re Moneyball with money,” Phillips said. “In that circumstance, they saved giving up a prospect because they were able to take on extra money, and that had value to them. So they can consider things other people can’t.”
Under Cohen, the Mets should have those kinds of options. To win consistently, though, they must still choose wisely, grow the farm system and scout for bargains. It is not as simple as pulling a stainless-steel rabbit out of a hat.