Mets' Sale to Steve Cohen Could Bring Dodgers-Like Transformation to NL East

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 15, 2020

FILE - In this Oct. 29, 2015, file photo, members of the media and grounds crew work on the field at Citi Field in New York, the day before Game 3 of the World Series between the Mets and the Kansas City Royals at the stadium. Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred says talks have ended over the proposed sale of a controlling share of the Mets from the families of Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz to hedge fund manager Steven Cohen. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan, File)
Peter Morgan/Associated Press

In the case of the New York Mets, the new boss almost certainly won't be the same as the old boss.

With Fred Wilpon at the forefront, the Wilpon family has been involved in the ownership of the Mets since 1980, and they've been majority owners of the franchise since 2002. But this era is set to come to an end.

On Monday, the Mets announced an agreement to sell the team to billionaire hedge-fund manager Steve Cohen:

Cohen already owns an 8 percent stake in the Mets. According to Tim Healey of Newsday, he stands to own 95 percent of the franchise if Monday's agreement is finalized.

The cost? Oh, only $2.475 billion. Or, a record-setting amount for a North American professional sports team.

The deal still needs to be approved by at least 23 of the other 29 owners in Major League Baseball. That approval will happen no later than when the owners gather for their annual meetings in November.

For now, the reported agreement already has one notable cheerleader. Though he says he values all 30 of MLB's teams "equally," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred also said this in response to the big news, per Evan Drellich of The Athletic:

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"Having said that, major markets generally have an outsized effect on the economics of the game, and I think it's important for us to be strong in our major markets. I think that a change in ownership at the Mets is an opportunity to make that franchise as strong as it can possibly be, and I think over the long haul it'll be something that will be good for the game."

It sounds as if Manfred is all too willing to welcome Cohen into the league's stable of majority owners—and also none too disappointed to see the Wilpons leave.

If so, well, Mets fans know the feeling.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

Granted, it hasn't been all bad for the Mets under the Wilpons.

Fred Wilpon was part of the ownership group that oversaw the club's World Series win in 1986, plus another run to the World Series in 2000. After majority ownership passed to the Wilpons in '02, the Mets made it to within a game of the World Series in 2006 and actually made it there again in 2015.

But in the scheme of things, seasons such as these have been the exceptions to the rule. Especially since '02, the Mets have been a generally mediocre team that's made the playoffs only three times.

That would be easier to excuse if the Mets were a small-market franchise. But they play in baseball's largest media market, which ought to give them the advantage of having high payrolls on a yearly basis.

They did for a while as their Opening Day payroll ranked no lower than seventh in MLB between 2000 and 2011. But then the Mets started to get cheap in 2012, and it's only recently that their payrolls have caught up with those of their neighbors in the Bronx:

Data courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts

It doesn't seem coincidental that MLB's Queens-based franchise began operating with lower payrolls right around the time Fred Wilpon got caught up in the collapse of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme. The franchise even had to take tens of millions of dollars' worth of loans from Bank of America and MLB itself in 2011.

By 2018, Fred Wilpon's son, Jeff, was defending the club's spending by saying he'd "rather look at what we can do in terms of wins and losses." A fair sentiment, to be sure, but only so valid in light of the facts. Including this year's 21-26 record, the Mets are on a 12-year run in which they rank 20th in overall winning percentage.

Yet in the apparent end, it's all been worth it for the Wilpons. They spent roughly $400 million to assume majority ownership of the Mets in 2002. They're now set to sell to Cohen for that plus $2 billion. According to David Waldstein of the New York Times, the Wilpons are also maintaining control of the SNY network.

These realities are bound to grind Mets fans' gears. But hey, at least the Wilpons will soon be gone. What's more, the guy taking their place should change things for the better.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

The specifics of what makes a "good" owner are subject to debate, but there are ultimately only two things that really matter: how much money an owner has and how willing he or she is to spend it.

If nothing else, Cohen checks the first box. Per Forbes, his net worth is $14.6 billion. That's nearly four times what the majority owners of the New York Yankees (the Steinbrenner family) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (Mark Walter) are worth.

As for Cohen's potential to check the second box, Joel Sherman of the New York Post heard this in December 2019 from a person in the know regarding the Great Neck native: "He grew up a Mets fan. He went to games in the Polo Grounds. He has deep pockets. He is a passionate fan. If I were a Met fan, I would expect that means more money."

As it happens, Cohen is poised to take over the Mets at a time when they have quite a lot of money coming off their books. Only Jacob deGrom, Robinson Cano and Jeurys Familia are under guaranteed contracts for 2021.

It's therefore easy to imagine Cohen setting a path to annual contention not unlike the one the Dodgers pursued after Walter and Co. took over the Dodgers in 2012: Spend big first and worry about sustainability later.

To start, that could mean signing one or more of this winter's top free agents, a group that includes catcher J.T. Realmuto, ace Trevor Bauer and outfielders George Springer and Marcell Ozuna. If combined with core stars like deGrom, Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil and Dominic Smith, such big splashes could make the Mets a World Series contender as soon as next year.

From there, following the Dodgers model further would require paring back payroll as part of a shift toward a more balanced form of roster-building. And why not? Especially since president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman took over in 2014, this very shift has allowed the Dodgers to maintain both star-studded major league rosters and deep farm systems on an annual basis.

The potential benefits of Los Angeles' approach are all there in their results. Since 2013, they've won seven National League West championships and played in two World Series. If Cohen takes a hint, he may well turn the Mets into the Dodgers of the National League East.

If there's a question here, it's how much longer Brodie Van Wagenen will remain in the general manager's chair. The former agent was a controversial hire to begin with, and his tenure has been so rocky that he frankly deserves to be on the hot seat even though his contract runs through 2022.

But regardless of who he chooses to turn his wishes into commands, it's absolutely fair for Mets fans to have high hopes for Cohen right now.

At the very least, he's not a member of the Wilpon clan. At the very best, his deep pockets will kick-start a transformation that turns the Mets into the powerhouse they should be.

     

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.