KANSAS CITY — It was “happenstance,” Steve Cohen said, that he was in Kansas City this week, right after the Mets had executed a large sell-off at the trade deadline. Cohen had planned the trip weeks ago to meet up with fraternity brothers from the University of Pennsylvania, and since he was in town, figured he’d stop by the Kauffman Stadium visiting clubhouse for a few conversations.
Cohen acknowledged, as a few of his players already have, that the shift in organizational direction would take time to process. Brandon Nimmo said earlier in the day he struggled to sleep the night Max Scherzer was traded; even after hearing more about the club’s plan from Billy Eppler the next day, Nimmo said it took 24 hours for it all to settle in.
Cohen himself said Wednesday that he’d mentally arrived at that place “a few weeks ago.”
“I’m surprised you’d be surprised,” he said Wednesday. “Because what did I say (in June)? I said I wanted sustainability. If we were in the same position, I wasn’t going to add.”
Steve Cohen: “Max asked me straight up if I’d be all-in on free agents, and I couldn’t give him that promise.”
— Tim Britton (@TimBritton) August 2, 2023
How did Cohen evaluate the team in the lead-up to the deadline?
“When you look at the probabilities, what were we, 15 percent?” he said. “And other teams were getting better — you have to take the odds down from that. If you’re going to have a 12 percent chance of winning — just getting into the playoffs — those are pretty crummy odds. I wouldn’t want to be betting any money on that. I don’t think anybody else would either. I said before, hope is not a strategy.
“At some point, we have to go win two-thirds of our games. We had shown no consistency along the way. So it really would have to take a stretch to believe that something would change now.”
Cohen said the Mets were going to trade Scherzer and Verlander only if the return package cleared a very high bar. They would have kept them both if the offers didn’t match their desired returns.
“We didn’t have any idea what was possible at the deadline,” he said. “We weren’t just going to do deals for the sake of doing deals. But we thought we got a great return for the people that we traded. We weren’t sure that was going to happen. I would’ve kept the players if it turned out it was going to be a mediocre return.
“It turned out that it’s a moment in time where other clubs are thinking very short-term and I was thinking more intermediate- and long-term. I was able to take advantage of that.”
Cohen did back up what Scherzer has said in recent days: that the Mets are not going to be as aggressive in free agency as in recent winters.
“Max asked me straight: ‘Are you going to be all-in on free agency next year?’ And I couldn’t give him that promise,” Cohen said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to bring in free agents. It may not be to the extent that we did in the past because I’m carrying a lot of dead money. But trading Justin and Max creates a lot of dead money.”
Impact on future free agents
Over the last two years, according to conversations with several agents, Cohen and Eppler turned the Mets into more of a destination that representatives wanted their players to consider.
Will the sudden pivot from the Mets’ brass and the idea that 2024 could be a “transition year” change any of those feelings? Will free agents be any less interested? In other words, could prospective free agents be turned away by players such as Scherzer and Verlander being told of one path only to have it change quickly and drastically?
Industry voices around the league suggested probably not.
As one agent said, “Money talks.”
Anecdotally and unlike the NBA, there just aren’t as many players chasing rings through free agency, multiple agents said.
Francisco Lindor said players would do their “homework” on the Mets’ plans and what the club’s decision “really means.” Lindor added that a one-year retool compares differently to a rebuild that may require multiple years of losing and frugalness. “The other thing is,” Lindor said, “I believe that if the right deal comes around, they’ll do it.” An agent agreed: players will sign if the Mets make strong offers.
Cohen suggested it wasn’t the first time that a team decided to change direction. And that’s true.
However, few teams have changed directions so aggressively. On Tuesday night, Eppler said he didn’t think prospective free agents would view the Mets differently.
“That’s for the player to evaluate,” Eppler said. “When we sit down and talk to players, we articulate how we look at the short term and if it’s someone that’s going to go on a multi-year deal, we can talk about the longer term. At the end of the day, the player’s going to process a lot of different things. When they make that decision, that’s ultimately the calculus that they use to come to those decisions. I don’t think that puts us in any kind of different scenario.”
With holes in their pitching staff and outfield, the Mets must continue to turn to free agency, even if they do not spend as much as they did ahead of the 2023 season. While building the farm system ranks highly on Cohen’s list of goals, he still wants to win. And the guess here is that he will still spend.
“That doesn’t preclude us from being very competitive next year,” Cohen said. “I’m competitive, OK? I’m opportunistic. So we’ll see what happens over the winter.”
Being “competitive” in 2024 is how Eppler has also described the Mets’ intentions. How does Cohen define “competitive”?
“I think the expectations were really high this year. And my guess is next year it’ll be a lot lower,” Cohen said. “I don’t want to roll a team out there we’re going to be embarrassed by. But we also know that spending a fortune doesn’t guarantee you a trip to the playoffs.
“I’m not as negative. It won’t be as star-studded a team as it was, but stars don’t necessarily make for wins. I think we’re going to be highly competitive.”
While Cohen didn’t meet with the players as a group, he did chat with several individually, including Pete Alonso. Unlike the other members of the club’s position-player core, Alonso is only under team control through next season.
“We love Pete as a Met,” Cohen said. “He’s an integral part of the Mets. He’s still with us for another year. We hope we work things out. Even with (Nimmo), we worked things out in free agency. Hopefully, we get a few shots at the apple and try to figure it out.”
Asked if he’d be interested in extending Alonso this offseason, Cohen said he’d keep their conversation private.
He added, “What I will say is Pete is a great Met.”
Buck Showalter’s future
Cohen hinted that Buck Showalter will return as Mets manager in 2024, but didn’t outright say it.
“Buck’s working hard,” Cohen said. “I’ve got a three-year contract (with Buck) and we’re only a year and a half in. We’re status quo.”
While Cohen added that “anything’s possible,” he reiterated in a separate question that Showalter’s contract is for three years and that, “Buck’s working his ass off, doing a good job. … Buck is doing everything I ask him to do.”
Last month, Cohen had said that both Showalter and Eppler would not lose their jobs during the season. On Wednesday, Cohen said Eppler did “a phenomenal job” at the trade deadline and that it’d be unfair to put the failures of the club on the manager.
“I don’t put it on Buck,” Cohen said. “I put it on the players. We’re hitting into some bad luck. Some things have happened which are probably just the opposite of last year.”
(Photo of Steve Cohen: Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)