While many owners are looking to spend less, New York is blowing past the luxury tax threshold and assembling some of the game’s biggest names.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — On a pair of bullpen mounds in the New York Mets’ spring training complex, Steve Cohen’s vision crystallized Monday morning.
Jacob deGrom, the two-time Cy Young Award winner, climbed one mound and unleashed fastballs with a pop that suggested he may be over the arm issues that kept him out of action since July.
A few minutes later, the mound to his right was occupied by Max Scherzer, his longtime National League East nemesis with three Cy Young Awards and, now, three years of a $43.3 million salary coming his way.
Taking it all in was the most recent addition to this machine, former Oakland Athletics All-Star right-hander Chris Bassitt, who traveled to Arizona on Saturday, learned he’d been acquired by the Mets and then hopped a flight east to join his teammates for their first full-squad workout.
Yet it was not Bassitt’s whirlwind travel itinerary that had him asking himself how he got here.
“To be paired with the group we have,” Bassitt said in glancing around a Mets clubhouse in which he needed no nameplates to identify the superstars, “is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Cohen, the Mets owner, would prefer that assembling such a super troupe be an annual event. It was Scherzer’s signing, just before Major League Baseball imposed a player lockout ahead of industry-altering collective-bargaining agreements, that thrust Cohen, the club owner worth $12 billion and a similarly bottomless trough of headlines, into the game’s crosshairs.
In the months to come, MLB would institute a special payroll tax threshold unofficially in Cohen’s name and on Sunday, after adding a crucial third piece to that rotation, Cohen almost giddily announced he wouldn’t hesitate to exceed that $290 million threshold either.
The Mets’ Saturday trade for Bassitt brought their estimated payroll north of $280 million, but of greater import gave them three dominant starters, or, oversimplified, a significantly greater chance to dominate more nights than not.
Monday, as the club gathered, minus a few tardy arrivals after the lockout’s abrupt conclusion, to see just what they signed up for, the woe-is-Mets narrative that somewhat accurately dogged the team tried to rear its head. DeGrom confirmed that he would opt out of his contract at season’s end, putting the onus on Cohen to sign him.
Slugging first baseman Pete Alonso revealed he’d been in a horrific auto accident Sunday in Tampa as he left for spring training, his Ford getting T-boned and rolling over three times.
And new manager Buck Showalter revealed that center fielder Starling Marte, signed to a four-year, $78 million deal, had an unsettling oblique injury.
Yet deGrom announced his intentions with hope, that he loves being a Met, that it would be “really cool” to spend his entire career with the club and that the plan is to “exercise that option and be in constant contact with Steve Cohen and the front office.”
Alonso, stunningly, escaped injury, will work out fully Tuesday and, already a spiritual man, proclaimed that “every day is a gift.”
And hey, even if Marte is idled for the April 7 opener after this truncated spring training, the point of the Steve Cohen Experience is that the club is built to withstand such temporary inconveniences.
More notably, while Cohen’s free-spending ways were framed in a doomsaying fashion by rival owners, the tenor in this camp makes it difficult to argue that the hedge fund kingpin is anything but good for baseball.
“One hundred percent,” said Mets veteran pitcher Trevor Williams, who suffered through lean years with the budget-conscious Pittsburgh Pirates. “It’s first and foremost the players in the clubhouse that make this team attractive to free agents. It’s the staff, starting with Buck. It’s going to a team where an owner isn’t afraid to spend money.
“That checks off all three things a free agent looks for. It’s an exciting moment to be a New York Met player and an exciting moment to be a New York Met fan.”
Cohen was a Met fan before he was a very rich man, viewed as an upside upon purchase but suddenly a liability in an industry where cost containment among owners has become something of an addiction.
Within his baseball sanctum, there is a reverence for this boundless commitment.
‘I want to give him a big hug’
As negotiations between MLB and the Players’ Association staggered to the finish, the concept of a fourth luxury tax threshold, the plateaus and the penalty rates, hovered over the proceedings.
Ultimately, both sides struck an agreement that established a fourth payroll ceiling that will reside $60 million above the first luxury tax threshold. In 2022, that means most teams will aim to duck under the $230 million tax threshold, and just two (Cohen and the Dodgers’ Mark Walter) will flirt with the $290 million mark.
Walter’s regime managed to duck back under the luxury tax and not exceed it until 2020. Cohen bought the Mets from the seemingly cursed Wilpon regime in November 2020 and needed just 12 months to inflame the industry.
The ignominy (or honor?) of having a tax named after you is minimal collateral damage to reel in Scherzer
“Flattered?” Cohen asked Sunday. “Listen, I’m still new to baseball. They call it the Cohen Tax. It’s better than a bridge being named for you. It’s still a lot of money to spend on a payroll. I don’t feel like it’s so confining that I can’t live with it.”
A wild offseason that began with quick strikes on Marte, outfielder Mark Canha (two years, $26.5 million) and infielder Eduardo Escobar (two years, $20 million), picked up steam with Scherzer’s signing and possibly culminated with the Bassitt acquisition and pending signing of reliever Adam Ottavino came amid the sport’s biggest collective-bargaining showdown in three decades.
The fight was over owners not caring to spend and players left to rummage for jobs far below their market value because of it. That Cohen does not hesitate to spring for solid players and superstars alike is, to his new charges, downright inspiring.
“I love it. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Cohen yet but when I do, I feel like I want to give him a big hug,” says Canha, 33, who spent his entire career in Oakland and hit a career-best 26 homers in 2019. “He gave me a very generous contract and I’m so happy to be here and grateful for the opportunity. I love that he’s going about it the way he is.
“We need more of that in baseball.”
The early signs are not encouraging.
As Canha spoke, he and Bassitt’s old team was finalizing the trade of All-Star first baseman Matt Olson to the Atlanta Braves. That transaction was unsettling on two fronts – the A’s, business as usual, shipping off stars as their never-ending quest for a new stadium lurches on.
And the Braves, reluctant to commit the $180 million to $200 million likely needed to retain franchise pillar Freddie Freeman, instead burning prospect equity to save some money, even as they print money from a World Series title and booming ballpark development.
The Reds dumped starter Sonny Gray, third baseman Eugenio Suarez and outfielder Jesse Winker. The Colorado Rockies appear ambivalent to retain star shortstop Trevor Story.
The CBA locked in cost certainty with regard to the luxury tax and provided incentives to promote young players. Yet can it alter owner behavior?
The Mets’ small-market refugees are skeptical.
“As far as I know, there’s no rules that are making teams spend more money,” said Canha. “So, if I had to guess, it’s not going to change much. I’m just happy we got Bassitt.
“Every team’s going to behave the way they want to. And more power to them.”
Said Bassitt: “Whatever we want, we’re getting. (Cohen) wants to win. We all want to win. We all have a common goal literally from the top to the very bottom. I think we have a definite advantage over the rest of the league.
“I think Oakland does a really good job. I’ll leave it at that.”
Williams said he’s hopeful 30 ownership groups want to win, but “trends have shown us otherwise.”
“It’s always going to be about want,” says Williams. “If an ownership group wants to do it, they’ll do it.
‘It stops right there’
Showalter, whose last gig was with the smaller-market, cost-paring Baltimore Orioles, is suddenly finds himself with the haves and the wants and he’s occasionally struck by his new environment. When he met shortstop Francisco Lindor – oh, Cohen gave him a $341 million deal 11 months ago – Showalter couldn’t believe how big his hands were.
All the new gadgets and enviable depth, of course, will come with expectations. Again, it’s a small price to pay for Cohen to sign your check.
“He’s curious. And he wants to win,” says Showalter. “I’ve had some owners who just …he wants to win. It stops right there.
“We understand our job description. If you have a problem with it, you’re probably in the wrong place.”
Naturally, all the money in the world won’t guarantee the Mets anything. Until the Bassitt acquisition, they were almost certainly an underdog to the Braves in the NL East.
Now, it’s shaping up as a compelling three-team fight among those two and the Phillies. New York will need a bounce-back year from Lindor. Health from deGrom. A graceful return from Robinson Cano, who addressed his teammates Monday after sitting out 2021 for a second PED violation; the universal DH at least gives him a task as he enters the eighth year of a 10-year, $240 million deal.
“There’s a lot of things written down on paper,” says new general manager Billy Eppler. “But now, it’s time to bring it to life.”
If not, Cohen will try again next year. And in this era of baseball, that’s more than half the battle.