At this point it should be obvious to everyone that the Mets are trying to thread the needle with their moves this offseason. They’re trying to assemble a team capable of making the playoffs this year, while maintaining payroll flexibility for the future. My opinion is that the flexibility is for 2026.
With the additions of Harrison Bader, Adrian Houser, Sean Manaea, Adam Ottavino, Luis Severino and Tyrone Taylor, the Mets have added just under $50 million in salary for players making above $2 million per year. With the luxury tax penalty of 110% that the Mets find themselves saddled with, that nearly $50 million is nearly $105 million spent this offseason on new additions. And we might see one more move to add even more money to this equation.
My opinion is that people who are upset because Cohen isn’t spending a ton this year need to realize that he’s spending $105 million to chase a Wild Card spot. He would be 100% justified in trying to lower his spending in a season where the Mets don’t have a great shot at the playoffs. Instead, he’s putting money up while maintaining his focus on future years.
To me, the question isn’t: Why isn’t Cohen spending more this offseason? The answer to that is he’s trying to build a perennial contender without being in the top tax bracket every single year. Instead, the question should be: Is Cohen just wasting money in a futile Wild Card chase?
Perhaps the answer to that question is how you feel about David Stearns and his ability to target the right players. Right away, we heard that the Mets were interested in Severino. Clearly, Stearns believes in Severino’s ability to turn things around. If Severino does turn in a good year, Stearns will deserve a lot of credit. My immediate opinion was that it was too much money to spend on the player and at the very least, the club should have received a team option in the deal.
But here’s why my opinion is that the flexibility is for 2026. If the moves the Mets make this offseason fail to produce a playoff club, they have the ability to cut payroll enough to get under all luxury tax thresholds in 2025 and reset their tax. That means if they sign free agents following the 2025 season, they won’t have to pay any tax at all on them that initial season, assuming the club remains under the initial luxury tax threshold. And if they do exceed that level, the starting tax would be 20%, rather than 50% that it would be without the reset.
If Severino is moderately successful, say the 1.4 fWAR season he had in 2022, and the Mets fail to make the playoffs – do you want the external pressure that a team option would present? If your goal is to reset your tax status, do you want to be responsible for $15 million or so to a below-average pitcher with an extensive injury history?
My opinion now is that the Mets did not negotiate for a team option with Severino because they felt it was too unlikely to be worth it for them. There’s a decent chance that Severino is as bad as he was in 2023, in which case, you wouldn’t want him back the following season. And add to that the chance that he’s mediocre – a sub-2.0 fWAR – and that the Mets could replicate that production from a guy in the farm system for minimum wage in 2025.
On the flip side of that is Manaea, with a player option in 2025. It’s my opinion that the Mets figure that it’s more likely that Manaea is good enough in 2024 to decline that option than it is that he stinks and opts in with the Mets for 2025. This will be Manaea’s ninth year in the majors. Assuming he’s healthy, he’ll have just one injury-marred season in nine on his record. That durability and even league-average results will get him a multi-year deal in free agency. If Seth Lugo can get 3/$45 after a season with 26 starts – the only time in his career he’s reached 20 starts – for his age 34-36 seasons, Manaea should be able to get at least that much at a year younger and a greater track record of going to the post as a starter.
It seems to me that Cohen is spending the money he did this year so that season ticket sales don’t crater in 2024. And that it would be easier to sell the fanbase on a one-year, belt-tightening plan, rather than a two-year one. We can call this Cohen’s way of rebuilding in New York. In a way, it harkens back to the pre-division days of baseball.
Some owners thought the best thing was that their club was in the race for the pennant in September but to finish short. That way, they could enjoy the benefits of ticket sales in September without having to pay raises for players coming off a year they went to the World Series. And before you get bent out of shape, this is not to imply that Cohen is in any way cheap. He’s spending a bunch of money to make this even possible, when a majority of owners would just punt on the 2024 season.
It’s easy to see what happens if the Mets fail to make the playoffs in 2024. But what if they’re this year’s version of the 2022 Phillies or 2023 Diamondbacks, teams that made the playoffs as a Wild Card and then advanced to the World Series? I don’t know. My guess is that Cohen and Stearns will blow up that bridge if/when they get to it. Difficult to imagine that they would be upset if that happened, it’s just that it might throw a monkey wrench in the plans to reset their tax in 2025.
But odds are that the 2024 Mets aren’t going to make the World Series, so it’s not a huge worry. My opinion is that the odds are that they’re not going to make the playoffs, either.
So, my crystal ball shows an 81-win type of season in 2024, with the three free agents with eight-figure salaries playing elsewhere in 2025. The Mets then get under all luxury tax thresholds and break in Luisangel Acuna, Drew Gilbert, Jett Williams and multiple pitching prospects in 2025. And then in the offseason before 2026, they make their big push in free agency to add whatever is missing.
And Voilà! You’ve rebuilt in New York.