An unpopular ownership despised by the fan base was out. A new ownership fueled by financial-services money was in, purchasing a mega-market franchise for a record price.
Steve Cohen was the runner-up eight years ago to a group headed by a famous athlete (Magic Johnson) and the big bucks of Mark Walter of Guggenheim Partners, when the Dodgers sold for $2.15 billion. That ended the unpopular ownership of Frank McCourt, whose tight-fisted, bizarre guidance with his then-wife, Jamie, made the Wilpon father-son duo free-spending and steady by comparison.
This time around, Cohen outdid an effort by a consortium fronted by Alex Rodriguez to buy the Mets from the Wilpons for a record $2.45 billion.
Enough similarities exist that soon after picking up the phone over the weekend, Dodgers president Stan Kasten said, “I know why you are calling.”
Kasten actually had advised Cohen a decade ago when Cohen first attempted to buy the Mets and — while offering praise for Fred Wilpon — said of Cohen, “There’s not a better fit for the Mets and Mets fans.”
Cohen wants to build the East Coast version of the Dodgers, stocking the front office with intellectual heft, gaining a cutting edge in analytics and technology, and becoming a force in every form of player procurement. Kasten often says if given the choice when running a team, he would rather be smart than rich, but of the new Mets leadership, which includes Sandy Alderson as team president, Kasten asserted, “I expect they are rich, I expect they are going to be smart. Therefore, I expect them to be successful.”
That first season, for Kasten and this Dodger regime, 2012, is the only one in which the team did not reach the playoffs. The Dodgers have won the NL West eight straight years and earned their first World Series title since 1988 this season. But that first year is informative in understanding what Cohen might do initially to try to push the Mets toward their first title since 1986.
The Dodgers gave a then-record deal for a Cuban defector in Yasiel Puig. They extended their version of Michael Conforto during his walk year in Andre Ethier. They were active at the July trade deadline, including taking on the large contract of Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins. And in late August, they assumed $258 million in contracts in trading for Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto from the Red Sox.
Mets fans are circling the top of the free-agent market with Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto and George Springer. But heed the Ramirez and Red Sox trades. For Cohen comes in as the richest owner at a pandemic time when most organizations could be looking to move contracts for lesser returns as long as the acquiring club takes on the salaries.
As one NL executive said, “Timing is everything and the timing is perfect for (Cohen) to take advantage of any market.”
The Dodgers invested big, including in that August trade, partly because they had a TV deal coming up. The excitement engendered with their star buildup led to a record 25-year, $8.3 billion pact with Time Warner. The trade in the short term helped the Red Sox, who cleared a payroll logjam to create financial flexibility to reconfigure and win the 2013 World Series. Teams concerned about lost revenue in 2020 and scary 2021 projections will remember that. They could see Cohen as offering a chance to offload dollars.
1. Francisco Lindor
The expectation is the Indians will not begin the 2021 season with the star shortstop and his $20 million-ish walk-year pact on their payroll. Think of the Mookie Betts trade that the Dodgers made last offseason, acquiring a star before his walk year whom the Red Sox did not think they could sign and taking on roughly half of the $96 million still owed David Price.
Cleveland does not have a big contract that would lower the return price for someone like Lindor. But in Amed Rosario, Andres Gimenez and Ronny Mauricio, the Mets have a fleet of young, inexpensive shortstops to offer to start a discussion. And — like the Dodgers with Betts — the Mets with Cohen have the resources to keep Lindor long-term, which would be central to making this kind of move.
2. Yu Darvish
A sense persists that the Cubs want to dramatically lower payroll. Darvish (three years, $59 million) is the most expensive piece. They do not have a strong farm system, plus core positional pieces Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber are all free agents after the 2021 season. The Mets could take Darvish’s whole contract, plus they have a deep reservoir of cost-effective positional pieces such as Rosario, J.D. Davis, Jeff McNeil and Dom Smith whom the Cubs could peruse. Like Price in the Red Sox-Dodgers trade, Cohen could even absorb the $17 million owed the faded Craig Kimbrel to lower the prospect return.
The likelihood is that Bauer, Darvish and Jake deGrom will finish 1-2-3 in the NL Cy Young voting. Imagine putting all three into one rotation.
3. Xander Bogaerts
Maybe after dealing Betts and seeing him win a title with the Dodgers, the Red Sox will not break down any further. But the Mets should call to be positive. Bogaerts has five years at $100 million left. He is not as good a shortstop as Lindor, but he is good and the kind of righty bat the Mets lineup needs.
4. Nolan Arenado
There are six years at $199 million left, plus Arenado can opt out after the 2021 campaign. He has made it clear he wants out of Colorado. The Rockies may need to clear financial space to retain star shortstop Trevor Story, who is free after next year. Arenado’s defense at third is genius. But his downgraded 2020 offense should give pause if a guy who plays this hard could be breaking down.
5. Robinson Cano
Of course the Mets have him. But what if they want to move him because they, say, want to sign DJ LeMahieu to play second or move McNeil there permanently? With money kicked in from the Mariners, the Mets owe Cano three years at $60.75 million. But Cohen could pay that down further. Would the offense-needy Marlins, for example, pay half the salary if it also meant getting a second bat such as, say, Brandon Nimmo’s in exchange for young pitching? Marlins CEO Derek Jeter could reunite with his most familiar double-play partner.