You know what is important for how the Mets play the coming trade deadline?
What Steve Cohen’s payroll intentions are for 2024.
Let’s begin here, no matter which route the Mets take at this deadline — buy, sell, a combo of both or stand pat — the intention will be to try and win next year again. They are not going to rebuild.
So, if they decide to sell more than just walk-year players such as David Robertson and Tommy Pham, they will have to believe they are getting enough in return and that those traded players can be adequately replaced for next season.
Take even a relatively small consideration such as Brooks Raley. Just about any contender would like to add a veteran lefty reliever of his caliber. He has a $6.5 million option for next season, though. There seems little internal belief that Josh Walker could step into the role of lead lefty reliever. So, the Mets would have to get enough in return, but then also know what could be done to obtain at least one quality lefty reliever.
The caricature of Cohen would simply be to trade Raley, buy free agent Josh Hader and team him with Edwin Diaz in his return from injury and then sign a WIll Smith or an Aroldis Chapman just because he could. Robertson could be brought back, too, giving the club two veteran lefties and two veteran righties with tons of closing experience in the back end.
But this week’s version of “Got my attention” was the quote from Cohen at his press conference last week in which he said, “I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long term, just losing the type of money that I’m losing. It’s a lot to ask. Frankly, you know, we’ll figure it out. I have the wherewithal to do it. And it’s just a question of how long.”
Yes, how long?
Spotrac currently projects the Mets to come in with roughly a $381 million payroll for luxury tax computations and, thus, be hit with about a $108 million penalty. That would be $489 million all in. If the Mets do not right themselves, is Cohen already signaling that he wants to lower this burden for next season when the repeat offender levies would be even higher?
And, if so, to what levels?
Cohen has forced us to think of him like no other owner. After making those comments, Cohen approved a trade for Trevor Gott and the instantly designated for assignment Chris Flexen that raised the payroll by $4.6 million and the tax bill by another $4 million.
These penalties have not made him even blink up until now. Remember, when the Mets had an agreement with Carlos Correa, the payroll and tax penalties were going to be even higher in 2023. This has felt like Cohen with his art collection — he was going to get the pieces he wanted regardless of cost.
But paintings and sculptures don’t come with a daily win or, in the case of the 2023 Mets, too often a daily loss. Has the money for nothing to this point forced Cohen to reformulate how he would like to spend? Or will he continue to try to invest what he must on major league payroll until his organization has met his No. 1 mandate — to construct a farm system that will annually deliver difference-making players?
That system is nowhere ready to do that, especially when it comes to pitching — worsened this year by the steps backward by Tylor Megill and David Peterson.
So if the Mets, for example, fully surrender and trade any or all of Jose Quintana, Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander, then they will have to replace Quintana, Scherzer and Verlander. And those answers are not internal. Outside executives see only Mike Vasil as close to ready to help the rotation from the farm system.
“I’m preparing my management team for all possibilities,” Cohen said at his press conference. “If we don’t get better, we have decisions to make at the trade deadline, and that’s not my preferred end result, but I’m preparing all contingencies.”
Cohen has said he sees the contracts he has invested in as sunk costs. By paying all but the prorated minimum on Eduardo Escobar to make him moveable to the Angels showed that he would eat what he had to in order to facilitate trades. The same was true for the Gott/Flexen maneuver — the Mets decided they would just rather buy a reliever now (Gott) who has a year of control for next season, too, then use good pieces from their farm system to obtain a reliever.
But Scherzer and Verlander are in a different financial weight class.
They are in the midst of making $43.33 million each this season. If Scherzer picks up his 2004 player option, both would also be due $43.33 million next season, plus Verlander has a conditional option for $35 million in 2025, when he would be pitching at age 42. If both had contracts ending this year and were amenable to waiving their no-trade clauses, I have little doubt Cohen would eat a nice bit of coin and there would be a market for them.
But the presence of future money for two historic pitchers who have had trouble with their health and performance this season will make adding them to future payrolls more troubling for any interested team. Cohen can eat some of that money as well. However, remember whatever he eats counts toward that luxury tax payroll as sure as the dead money this season for Robinson Cano, James McCann, Darin Ruf and now Escobar and Flexen does.
So this is why what Cohen is willing to spend moving forward is pertinent. Because if those players are traded but he is paying a good deal of their 2024 salaries, then that and whoever their replacements are go on the books for next year. How much dead money plus new money plus existing money is Cohen willing to have in 2024, when the goal is still going to be to contend?
It is why unless the Mets get actual attractive pieces back they might just play it out and try to win as many games as possible in 2023. It isn’t like Cohen is looking to save every nickel or million dollars. It might be better to just have Scherzer (if he picks up the option) and Verlander for 2024 and try again.
What are the alternatives if they move on from Scherzer/Verlander?
Will Cohen be unable to resist going to the top of the market to pay Shohei Ohtani what is needed to bring him to Queens (if the two-way star actually is willing to leave the West Coast)? That is going to be at least $45 million annually — and probably more (perhaps significantly more).
If not Ohtani, do the Mets try to replace Scherzer and Verlander with a combo like Aaron Nola and Julio Urias? If they are out at that level because Cohen wants to bring the payroll down some, is the next level Lucas Giolito and Luis Severino (if Severino can get his act together)?
As Cohen said at his press conference: “If it turns out we don’t improve (in 2023) and I’m looking at ’24 with a similar team, one year older, for a veteran team, probably not a great place to be. We have to make honest, truthful judgments.”
Central to that judgment is what the budget for 2024 is. Does Cohen feel burned by 2023? Does he feel like this is just the cost of how he is willing to do business? Will he have one payroll if he can lure Ohtani and one considerably smaller if he can’t? Can the Mets actually get enough for Scherzer and/or Verlander and/or anyone with future control to make dealing them worth it and then try to find their replacements?
There are lots of questions between now and Aug. 1, and they are all easier to answer if Cohen’s financial commitment for 2024 is known.
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Roster stuff maybe only I notice
On the subject of Cohen basing his ownership on building a world class farm system, come follow this bouncing ball:
When the Angels inserted reliever Victor Mederos into Friday night’s game, he became the third player from the 2022 draft class to reach the majors. All have been Angels. The others were their first pick, shortstop Zach Neto, and their third-round selection, reliever Ben Joyce.
The Angels also were the first team to bring a 2021 draft pick to the majors, when they summoned Chase Silseth last year. There are still only 13 players from the 2021 draft who have played in the majors, and the Angels (Silseth, Sam Bachman), the Guardians (Gavin Williams and Tanner Bibbee) and the Mariners (Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo) are the only teams that have promoted two each.
Perry Minasian has shown by promoting five picks from his first two drafts as Angels GM so quickly that he is not afraid to push prospects, particularly relievers when the trade market is not yet truly open to problem-solve that way.
Silseth and Bachman represent two of the 20 pitchers Minasian took over the course of the 20 rounds in his first draft after succeeding Billy Eppler as the Angels GM.
Eppler did not have a strong record with his five drafts in Anaheim. Just nine of the players he took from 2016-2020 have played in the majors this season: Matt Thaiss and Brandon Marsh from 2016, Jo Adell and Griffin Canning from 2017, Kyle Bradish, Austin Warren, Andrew Wantz, and Cooper Criswell from 2018 and Reid Detmers from 2020.
Canning and, especially, Detmers are performing well in the Angels rotation. Marsh has gone to a different level once dealt to the Phillies in return for well-regarded catching prospect, Logan O’Hoppe. But there has been little impact beyond that, particularly for first-rounders not named Detmers.
Thaiss, Eppler’s initial first-round pick in 2016, is finally showing some usefulness this season with frontline catchers O’Hoppe and Max Stassi out injured. Jo Adell (2017) has failed to gain traction due to high strikeout totals and meh defense. Outfielder Jordyn Adams (2018) and shortstop Will Willson (2019) have yet to reach the majors and have lost the view of being meaningful prospects — Wilson was, for example, the 15th overall pick; the Diamondbacks took Corbin Carroll 16th.
Detmers was the only first-round pitcher taken by Eppler. With two first-round picks in his first draft for the Mets last season, Eppler took two position players — catcher Kevin Parada with the 11th overall pick and shortstop Jett Williams with the 14th selection. Taken in between them at No. 13 was Neto, who was performing at an above-average fashion already for the Angels before incurring a strained oblique three weeks ago.
It is way too early to determine if Parada and Williams were the right picks or if the Mets should have done, for example, what the Padres did with two first-round picks after the Mets selection, taking a pair of pitchers, Dylan Lesko and Robby Snelling.
Part of meeting Cohen’s edict to having an elite farm is excelling in the draft. Eppler has been told he will be judged largely on how well he can assemble that level of feeder system. But it gets a little tougher this year. Because they exceeded the luxury tax by $40 million in 2022, the Mets have their first-round pick this coming Sunday drop 10 spots to No. 32 overall.
Whose career do you got?
J.D. Martinez and Justin Turner were not traded for each other. But for all intents and purposes they were.
The Dodgers decided it was time to move on from Turner. The Red Sox from Martinez. It played like couples who felt like they all had stayed at the party too long and it was time to change scenery.
So a few days apart in December, Turner agreed to a two-year, $22 million deal with the Red Sox — one-year at $15 million if he decides to opt out of his 2024 agreement — and Martinez agreed to a one-year, $10 million pact with the Dodgers.
Their similarities pre-date their corresponding moves. Both Martinez and Turner transformed careers going nowhere by becoming poster boys for the launch angle revolution. Martinez was just learning to get the ball in the air with authority when the Astros gave up on him by releasing him in spring 2014 after this age-26 season. Turner was just beginning to apply the get-it-in-the-air-with-authority wisdom shared with him by Marlon Byrd with the Mets late in the 2013 season, but the Mets non-tendered him. Turner hooked on with the Dodgers and his career took off beginning with his age-29 season.
Both were key middle-of-the-lineup forces for a champion — Martinez with the 2018 Red Sox and Turner with the 2020 Dodgers.
And this season both are having impacts in their new locales, mainly as the DH, though Turner also will play some first base. Through Sunday, Turner’s slash line was .277/.350/.460 with 13 homers and he was worth 1.4 Wins Above Replacement via Baseball Reference. Martinez was hitting .259/.302/.563 with 19 homers and 0.9 WAR.
They have comparable career numbers as well — Turner at .288/.365/.466, Martinez at .287/.350/.522. Martinez owns the power game with 301 homers to Turner’s 177, but Turner has the better overall WAR of 35.8 to 28.9 because for most of his time with the Dodgers, Turner was a strong third baseman.
It is ultimately why I am veering here for this week’s matchup to find someone more like Martinez. Someone who played a position, but just as an excuse to bat. So we bring you J.D. Martinez vs. Mo Vaughn.
Both players came up in their age-23 season. Vaughn played through 35. Martinez is in his age-35 season. In 6,410 plate appearances, Vaughn had a 132 OPS-plus. In 6,179 plate appearances, Martinez has a 132 OPS-plus. Martinez should end up with close to Vaughn’s total number of plate appearances by the end of this season.
Vaughn’s final season, with the Mets in 2003, was a disaster, curtailed by a knee injury that led to his retirement. Martinez’s positive 2023 means he almost certainly will keep playing beyond this season.
For his career, Vaughn had a .293/.383/.523 slash line with 328 homers. Martinez is at .287/.350/.522. Vaughn won the AL MVP in 1995 and also placed fourth, fifth, 17th, 18th and 25th while making an All-Star team three times and earning one Silver Slugger. Martinez has finished fourth, 14th, 15th and 21st for the MVP, been an All-Star five times and won three Silver Sluggers. They both led the AL in RBI once — Vaughn with 126 in 1995 and Martinez with an MLB-best 130 in 2018.
Who do you got?
In Sunday’s Post, I offered my midseason awards (positive and negative). Also on Sunday, the All-Star teams were fully announced. So how about the anti-All-Star team. My ground rules: Just position players and the player must be in the midst of a multi-year contract:
C — Willson Contreras, Cardinals (season 1 of a five-year, $87.5 million pact): He was only on the job a few weeks when St. Louis removed him as the starter before restoring him to the position. It was always specious that after two decades of having Yadier Molina as a pitcher whisperer/defense-first stalwart — and almost always being a contender built around that piece — that the Cardinals would pivot to an offense-first receiver. Except Contreras was hitting .214 with eight homers and an 84 OPS-plus (all stats through the weekend).
1B — Jose Abreu, Astros (season 1 of a three-year, $57 million pact): Is he showing signs of life? In his last 21 games (through Sunday), Abreu was hitting .318 with five homers and a .905 OPS. Still, the overall: .243, seven homers and an 84 OPS-plus.
2B — DJ LeMahieu, Yankees (season 3 of a six-year, $90 million pact): There were other candidates, including Jeff McNeil. But the Yankees so badly need LeMahieu to be a good hitter, especially with Aaron Judge out. He just has not been the same since the middle of last year when he hurt his foot. Heading into Monday night, he was only hitting .225. Most concerning is that his 11.3 percent increase in strikeout rate — from 13.1 to 24.3 — is the largest for anyone who had at least 400 plate appearances last year and at least 200 this season.
SS — Tim Anderson, White Sox (season 4 of a six-year, $25 million pact): So many choices — Javy Baez, Carlos Correa, Trea Turner — but what the heck has happened to Anderson? He had the second-most plate appearances (263) without a homer this year. He began the season with a .288 career average. It was .231.
3B — Jean Segura, Marlins (season 1 of a two-year, $17 million): Like with the shortstops, there are big-moneyed players who, dollar for dollar, are having worse seasons, such as Manny Machado, Anthony Rendon and Eugenio Suarez. But like Anderson, Segura is approaching unplayable. A .285 career hitter coming into this year, Segura was at .199, and no player who has batted at least 200 times had a slugging percentage lower than his .252.
OF 1 — Kris Bryant, Rockies. (season 2 of a seven-year, $182 million pact): Perhaps the best award to track is which long-term contract for a 2016 champion Cub will be most disastrous: Bryant vs. Baez vs. Contreras. Bryant has played at altitude for two seasons now and has 10 total homers in 409 plate appearances. He was hitting .260 with an 83 OPS-plus this season.
OF 2 — Byron Buxton, Twins (season 2 of a seven-year, $100 million pact): He actually has not played the field one inning this season. Once among the best defensive center fielders in the game, Buxton’s chronically bad knees have kept him off the field and exclusively in the batter’s box, where he was hitting .210, including .125 with runners in scoring position, the worst in the majors for anyone with at least 50 plate appearances in such situations.
OF 3 — Starling Marte, Mets (season 2 of a four-year, $78 million pact): The fall on both sides of the ball has been stark. Baseball Reference has him as a -0.5 WAR player.
DH — Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees (season 9 of a 13-year, $325 million pact): Miguel Cabrera could have retired this award several seasons ago, but with him on a farewell retirement tour as he closes out his eight-year, $240 million contract, let’s skip him and wonder if the Yankees are heading toward Cabrera Land with Stanton. He is in the midst of having his OPS fall for a fourth straight season, down to .657 this year. The Yankees keep talking about Stanton’s streakiness and the hot tear he will soon get on. But they needed him hot while Judge is out.
On Sunday, Aaron Boone championed Gleyber Torres for the AL All-Star team by saying,
“I actually feel like he’s outperformed what his numbers [show].”
I actually don’t.
Not if what we mean by “numbers” being the total value of a player.
Look, I get it. Boone is über-loyal to his players and wants them to know he is always backing them. And who knows? The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if this is part of the Yankees trying to build Torres up for a trade before the Aug. 1 deadline. But there is no way to watch Gleyber Torres — the whole player — this year and call him an All-Star, even in a down year for AL second basemen.
Even in what Torres does well, which is hit, he’s basically slightly above average — a .248 batting average, 12 homers and a 104 OPS-plus. What he has done particularly well is raise his walk rate 3.3 percent (6.8 percent to 10.1) and lower his strikeout rate from 22.6 to 14.2 — the 8.4 percent drop is the second best in the majors for anyone who batted at least 500 times last year and 300 so far this season.
Torres has been among the majors’ worst baserunners. He is just 7-for-12 in steal attempts and he is among the MLB leaders in making outs on the bases (six) beyond caught stealings, pickoffs and forceouts. There are times Torres seems to be running until he is tagged. He also has taken a step backward defensively from last season. He is capable of spectacular plays. But he can get absent-minded or unnecessarily showy. His eight errors were the most by any second baseman.