One of the first moves that new Mets owner Steve Cohen announced as he worked through the sale approval process was the return of former General Manager Sandy Alderson as the team’s president. This move was generally met with praise, and to some a sign that Cohen wasn’t simply going to storm in with his Scrooge McDuck money and recklessly flood a free agent market impacted by revenue losses incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you were a Mets fan, the thought of the team being one of only a handful with the ability to spend big was seemingly a dream come true. If you were an opposing owner tasked with approving Cohen’s purchase, that thought was most assuredly a less appealing scenario.
Much to the delight of Mets fans, Cohen appears to be wasting little time in shoring up the organizational shortcomings that were a perverse mainstay of the Wilpon era. Cutting corners across organizational operations, refusing to go all in on building a robust advanced analytics department, and ownership meddling in roster management and day-to-day baseball operations represented just a sliver of the underlying dysfunction that all too often justified the “LOLMets” moniker that haunts the franchise. With Cohen that all seems apt to change, and his first order of business appears to be putting the adults back in charge.
Restoring a bit of order, however, likely means the freewheeling spending of Cohen’s coffers some fans dreamed of might not come to fruition. The Mets had some work to do on their roster heading into the offseason, and it just so happens that three of their biggest needs were tied to three of the biggest free agents available: catcher (J.T. Realmuto), center field (George Springer), and starting pitcher (Trevor Bauer). Was it likely that the team was going to sign all three of these big-ticket players in one offseason? No, obviously, but the team’s signing of James McCann to a four-year $40 million deal so early in another painfully slow hot stove season may portend an unforeseen consequence that may come with bringing back the overseer of the Mets’ lowest period of austerity: attempting to outsmart everyone while spending less.
To be fair, the Mets’ stated intent was to hire both a President of Baseball Operations as well as a General Manager. Having failed to hire the former (mostly due to the best candidates’ current employers denying them interviews) and only just hiring the latter (Jared Porter), Alderson is once again in the driver’s seat for the team’s offseason roster-tweaking for 2021. On the surface that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, as Alderson is clearly a measured and calculating individual that doesn’t tend to act on impulse. In a vacuum, that’s the type of management you want in place to ensure the new owner’s significant funds aren’t spent so recklessly that it actually hamstrings the team in the future. The potential downside is that Alderson might not be able to shake the miserly nature in which he was forced to operate the last time he had his hands on the wheel in New York.
The general consensus seemed to be that McCann would sign for two or three years at roughly the average annual salary to which the Mets inked him. The fourth year he received from the Mets, it would seem, was the cost for the team to secure his services so early in the offseason.
The obvious first question after the signing concerns why the team jumped on McCann when Realmuto was (and is) still available. The answer is just as obvious: his exorbitant price tag and his rumored lack of desire to play in New York. Both of those points play on each other, as an already high price would theoretically be higher for a team for which he would rather not play.
The second question is, of course, how to square the concept of the team (potentially) not wanting to meet Realmuto’s price while also overpaying for McCann. The most palatable answer is that the team plans on being aggressive players in the Springer and Bauer sweepstakes and were not inclined to pay big for Realmuto’s twilight years. In this scenario, the team was being aggressive on McCann to avoid having another team snatch him up while everyone’s focus was on Realmuto. If this is the case, it’s a great example of Alderson strategically leveraging the financial resources now at his disposal and a good sign that the team will start acting as the large-market team its fans and new owner demand.
What if the Mets sign no other big-ticket free agents, though? What if their biggest acquisition this offseason ends up being McCann based solely on monetary reasons? It certainly wouldn’t be for a lack of funds, and as far as Cohen has conveyed publicly it wouldn’t be for a lack of desire to win. In this scenario, we have to question whether or not Alderson has the stomach to spend like a large-market club rather than continuing to attempt to outsmart the rest of baseball with ostensibly shrewd roster decisions.
There’s a long way to go before we can fully assess the Mets’ first offseason under new ownership, and there are several big fish still out there that would dramatically improve the team’s roster should they so choose to dole out the funds. We should obviously exercise caution in reading too deeply into the team’s early moves when there is still so much to be done before the 2021 season. Still, it’s not unreasonable to wonder just how far Alderson will go in what are essentially uncharted waters for the old school moneyballer.
Sports agent caricature Scott Boras once chastised the Mets for shopping in the “fruits-and-nuts category” in the free-agent marketplace. It was a harsh but fair assessment of the state that the franchise was put into by the bumbling Wilpons. That iteration of the team was also run by Alderson, though under drastically different circumstances. We’re just two months away from the official start of Spring Training, but that’s plenty of time for Cohen and Alderson to show fans and the sport whether or not we’ve truly entered a new era of Mets baseball that no longer justifies regular “LOLMets” quips.