Robinson Cano Suspension Provides Huge Boost for Mets' Quest to Dethrone Yankees

Bob KlapischFeatured Columnist INovember 19, 2020

New York Mets' Robinson Cano (24) celebrates with Pete Alonso (20) after scoring with Yoenis Cespedes on a two-run single by Amed Rosario during the second inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox, Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The offseason may have been struck by a lightning bolt Wednesday, thanks to Robinson Cano's one-year performance-enhancing drug suspension, but hang onβ€”the reverberations have just begun.

Only on first glance does Cano's forced departure hurt the Mets. He was, after all, a productive veteran slugger who was part of new owner Steve Cohen's plan to rebuild the franchise. But the Mets are actually winners, as the $20.3 million they owed Cano in 2021 can now be diverted elsewhere.

Target No. 1 might just be Yankees free agent DJ LeMahieu, the American League's newly crowned batting champion and a must-sign for the Bronx Bombers. Strangely, Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner has yet to make a decisive offer for LeMahieu, according to a source, which leaves the door open for Cohen and the Mets.

Not that Cohen actually needs Cano's pocketed salary to justify the pursuit. He's not only baseball's newest owner, but he's also the richest, with a portfolio worth an estimated $14.6 billion. And unlike his industry peers, Cohen didn't lose a penny when MLB played in empty stadiums this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

That means the Mets have the potential to be monsters, not just to the National League but also to the Yankees. And get this: Cohen's wealth is only half of what makes him a threat. He's a lifelong Mets loyalist who, like so many of their fans in the metropolitan area, got sick of the losing. Cohen's desire to build a winner is both gutsy and maybe a little absurd.

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But there's no doubt it's sincere.

Cohen is openly talking about a World Series in Flushing within 3-5 years. That's reaching high, but at the very least he has the means to turn New York into a two-team town again. The Mets and Yankees met in the 2000 World Series, but the last time they were neck-and-neck rivals was in the mid-1980s, back when the Don Mattingly-Keith Hernandez comparison was at its peak.

Yogi Berra used to say the height of the Bombers' dynasty in the 1950s was meeting the Brooklyn Dodgers every year in the World Series. Preposterous as it sounds in today's polarized sports world, Yogi believed Yankees and Mets fans should root for each other's team to succeedβ€”just for the chance for the ultimate October showdown.

Enter Cohen, who arrives just as the Yankees have plateaued. They've come up short in the playoffs four years in a row and are showing signs of paring resources for 2021. Sources say it's all but certain Steinbrenner will order general manager Brian Cashman to cut payroll under the $210 million luxury-tax threshold.

While the Steinbrenners' financial empire remains solid, the club itself lost about $180 million last season. And with no guarantee fans will be allowed back in stadiums in 2021, Steinbrenner has understandably asked if the losses will extend into a second summer.

So while there's a desire and ostensibly the funds to pay LeMahieu, say, $88 million over four years, that figure was outdated the moment Cano's test results were made public. What if Cohen throws caution to the wind and decides to pay the slugger $30 million a year? Would the Yankees be drawn into a bidding war with the Mets? Better question: Could they win?

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Cohen is just bold enough to play this game of chicken with Steinbrenner, even if he doesn't necessarily have to. The Mets, after all, could go the conservative route in their infield: use Jeff McNeil at second base with J.D. Davis at third. Andres Gimenez could also play second. Cohen could then use Cano's money to chase Philadelphia Phillies free agent catcher J.T. Realmutoβ€”and he just might. Houston Astros free agent center fielder George Springer is on the club's radar as well. Maybe he'll splurge on both.

But there's something irresistible about potentially luring away the Yankees' most complete hitter. Even Cohen's counterparts across town are impressed by his ambition. As one Yankees higher-up predicted earlier this week: "Steve is going to turn that team around pretty quickly. No doubt the Mets are going to be legit."

The executive made sure to add a second, salient point about the coming war. The two sides will regard each other as rivals but not enemies.

"We will do business with the Mets," the Yankees source said, referring to possible trades in the future. "It's in everyone's best interests if the Mets are playing competitive baseball. The fans will love it."

The graciousness was in stark contrast to the icy relationship the Yankees had with the Wilpon family. Jeff Wilpon in particular was loath to help the Steinbrenners in any way, going as far as to torpedo a trade that would've sent Jay Bruce to the Bronx in 2018 just because the salary dump would have reflected poorly on the Mets, according to sources. The younger Wilpon was envious of the better-financed, more intelligently operated Yankees monolith.

Now it looks like the playing field could soon be even. To be fair, the Yankees do have a 20-year head start on the Mets. They've excelled at nearly every aspect of the game, including scouting, analytics and player development. These are areas Cohen's Mets have only started to expand.

Hiring Sandy Alderson as team president and Cohen's right-hand man was a huge step forward. That's another checked box: The Mets' institutional IQ is growing by leaps and bounds. Next will be appointing a day-to-day head of baseball operationsβ€”possibly Cleveland's Mike Chernoff.

But sometimes progress is measured in ways that are unquantifiable: good timing or old-fashioned good luck. While no one should celebrate Cano's downfallβ€”and the disgrace of getting caught violating MLB's drug policy for a second timeβ€”the suspension happened at the perfect point in the offseason for the Mets.

It's still early enough for Cohen to draw up a new plan, find a new way to shift the tectonic plates. Don't be surprised if Cohen goes after LeMahieuβ€”and then goes one step further, throwing ridiculous money in his direction. The Yankees should considered themselves warned.

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