The Mets Trade a Star and Embrace the Future

The Mets Trade a Star and Embrace the Future

The most expensive roster in major league history was a failure. The Mets’ superfan owner, Steven A. Cohen, committed nearly half a billion dollars this season to learn a timeless lesson easily forgotten when pursuing World Series glory: Money guarantees nothing.

Early Friday morning, the Mets shipped the team’s closer, David Robertson, to the Miami Marlins for two teenage prospects. That deal signaled that the front office had lost hope, and the next one confirmed it: On Saturday, the team agreed to trade Max Scherzer, a starter destined for the Hall of Fame, to the Texas Rangers for Luisangel Acuña, the brother of Atlanta’s superstar outfielder, Ronald Acuña Jr.

The agreement, which requires Scherzer to waive his no-trade clause, was confirmed on condition of anonymity by a person familiar with the negotiations who was not authorized to discuss them publicly. As part of the deal, Scherzer will exercise his $43.3 million player option for 2024.

“We put ourselves in this position,” Scherzer told reporters at Citi Field on Friday after beating Washington, the only team trailing the Mets in the National League East. “We haven’t played well as a team. I’ve had a hand in that for why we’re in the position that we’re at. Can’t get mad at anybody but yourself, but it stinks.”

The Mets went 101-61 last season, a record eclipsed only once in franchise history, by the sainted rascals of 1986. This year’s team was 49-54 heading into Saturday night’s game, 17 games behind Atlanta in the division and far back in the wild-card race, too.

For $377 million — plus another $105 million or so in luxury tax penalties — the 2023 Mets won’t even have the chance to lose in the first round again.

Cohen, 67, has owned the Mets since the end of the 2020 season. As a lifelong fan, he has seen prior owners try to buy their way to the top. It didn’t work in the 1990s with Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman and Bret Saberhagen; it didn’t work in the 2010s with Johan Santana, Francisco Rodriguez and Jason Bay; and it hasn’t worked now with Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Francisco Lindor.

We’ll keep the last group in the present tense, even with Scherzer gone. Verlander, 40, is signed through next season, and Lindor, 30, is signed through 2031. Both, like Scherzer, have been good but not great. The three players will combine to earn $119 million this season.

Scherzer is 9-4, but his 4.01 earned run average would be his highest in 12 years and he leads the N.L. in homers allowed, with 23. When his slider is right, Scherzer can still dominate, and at 39 he is well into the hired-gun stage of his career. He belongs in a pennant race.

In Texas, Scherzer essentially replaces another member of the 2022 Mets rotation, Jacob deGrom, who took his fabulous but fragile arm to the Rangers for a five-year, $185 million contract and needed Tommy John surgery after six starts.

The Rangers weathered that loss, remained in first place and have kept on spending. They are chasing the first World Series title in franchise history, and their lavish deals have mostly worked: four starters signed as free agents have combined to go 32-17, and the middle infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien — signed for a combined $500 million before last season — started in the All-Star Game.

Spending obviously has its advantages, then — look at the Phillies, whose well-paid imports brought a World Series to Philadelphia last fall. But Cohen has always said that it takes more than money to win; the volume of his spending has simply muted the message.

“In my own hedge fund, the key to my firm is that we develop talent all the time,” Cohen said at his introductory news conference in November 2020. “If I didn’t do that, and depended on just going out in the world and hiring people on the outside, I’d be out of business. So I really feel it’s important that we draft well and develop our players and hold onto them.”

Last winter, the Mets spent nearly $550 million on contracts for Verlander, Brandon Nimmo, Edwin Díaz, Kodai Senga, Jeff McNeil, José Quintana, Omar Narváez, Robertson and Tommy Pham. But even then, Cohen was emphasizing the value of player development.

“I inherited a farm system that was hollowed out and I’ve been investing in the farm system,” Cohen told Howie Rose, the team’s longtime broadcaster, in a February podcast. “I’ve been investing in technologies, investing in personnel, and trying to drive the farm system to where it needs to go.”

Cohen was a bidder for the Los Angeles Dodgers when that team was for sale in 2012. The winning ownership group, led by Mark Walter, invested heavily in the major league payroll to prop up the front-facing product while working feverishly on the farm. The Dodgers have continued to spend big — but they continue to win because they also have a bottomless well of homegrown talent.

In the last decade, the Dodgers have won 73 more games than any other franchise, making the playoffs every season and reaching three World Series, winning one. Cohen’s vision matches theirs: spend like a big-market bully while growing a farm system with the urgency of a small-market team that has no other choice.

Maybe the prospects from these trades, and others to come, will grow into stars. Maybe not. Either way, the organizational pivot is a good sign. The best part of this lost season has been the emergence of Francisco Alvarez, the slugging 21-year-old catcher who looks like a keeper. More like him, please.

Building around Alvarez — and those who may follow him to Flushing — will keep the Mets from spending so much in an effort to win. Fans should never care about a billionaire’s finances, though, and the point is not that younger players are cheaper. The point is that they are better.

The Mets constructed a roster that was very accomplished, very rich and, in baseball terms, very old. It was never meant to last, and now it is breaking apart.

Scott Miller contributed reporting.

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