The Mets had a Major League record payroll of close to $357MM on Opening Day, as they followed up their 101-win season in 2022 with an incredibly aggressive offseason. However, just as the Mets broke new ground in building their roster, they have also been as aggressive in pivoting in the wake of a very disappointing four months. With just a 50-55 record entering today’s action, the Mets have been one of the trade deadline’s busiest teams, unloading both major and minor names, rental players and some players controlled beyond the 2023 season. The long list of players departing Queens in the last six weeks includes Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Robertson, Tommy Pham, Mark Canha, Dominic Leone, and Eduardo Escobar, as the Mets have pursued a strategy of absorbing most of the salaries of those departed players in order to obtain more young talent in return.
As Scherzer told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, the Mets’ plan apparently extends to rebuilding not for the 2024 season, but for future seasons. Scherzer had to waive his no-trade protection in order to be dealt to the Rangers, and before making his decision, the ace first spoke with GM Billy Eppler and the Amazins’ longer-term plans.
According to Scherzer, “I was like, ’OK, are we reloading for 2024?’ [Eppler] goes, ’No, we’re not. Basically our vision now is for 2025-2026, ’25 at the earliest, more like ’26. We’re going to be making trades around that.’ I was like, ’So the team is not going to be pursuing free agents this offseason or assemble a team that can compete for a World Series next year?’ He said, ’No, we’re not going to be signing the upper-echelon guys. We’re going to be on the smaller deals within free agency. ‘24 is now looking to be more of a kind of transitory year.’ ”
A follow-up chat between Scherzer and Mets owner Steve Cohen took the same tack, which inspired Scherzer to waive his no-trade clause and approve the deal to the Rangers. “That’s basically what Steve said: ’I never thought in a million years we’d be in this situation, being at the deadline and we’re actually selling. But the math is the math. And the math says this organization needs to retool.’ That was Steve saying that. I said, ’I get it. I’m not here to say you’re wrong.’ It is what it is. I understand from Steve’s perspective that’s the direction he wants to take the team based on where everyone is at within their contracts, arbitration, free agency. That was the new vision for the Mets.”
However, Scherzer also noted that “if they had said, ‘We’re going to hold on to all the ‘24 pieces,’ that would have been a different story.”
“But they were saying no, we’re going to be moving players that are under contract for 2024 before the deadline. We walked through some players I had in mind who would be that. It turned out it was much more extensive than that. The players we ended up talking about who are free agents after ‘24, they were more substantial names. Any player who was a free agent after 2024 at the right price could be moved right now at the deadline. That’s a completely different vision from what everybody had in the clubhouse. All the players had a vision of, we reload for 2024. That was no longer the case.”
Scherzer (who had an opt-out clause), Canha ($11.5MM club option for 2024), and Verlander were the only players controlled beyond 2023 who ended up being moved, as the likes of Jose Quintana and other club-option players like Brooks Raley, Omar Narvaez, and Adam Ottavino are all still with New York. Still, obviously moving two cornerstone aces like Scherzer and Verlander marked a severe change in direction for the Mets’ plans, as trading either pitcher in a deadline deal would’ve seem far-fetched given the hefty investment made in both future Hall-of-Famers over the last two winters. Verlander was signed to a two-year, $86.67MM with a conditional player option for 2025, while Scherzer came to Queens in the 2021-22 offseason on a three-year, $130MM pact.
In the wake of Scherzer’s trade, Eppler stated to reporters that “I do want to be clear that it’s not a rebuild. It’s not a fire sale. It’s not a liquidation. This is just a repurposing of Steve’s investment in the club, and kind of shifting that investment from the team into the organization.” Talking with media (including SNY’s John Flanigan) today, Eppler didn’t comment on Scherzer’s statements to Rosenthal, but expanded on his previous statement and reiterated that the Mets weren’t going to tank.
“One of the goals here is to expedite the longer-term goal. We’re trying to restock and reload the farm system,” Eppler said. “You have to go through a little pain to get where we want to go, but I feel like the organization is making strides towards a better future…..Going into 2024 we don’t see ourselves having the same odds that we did in 2022 and 2023, but we will field a competitive team.”
Cohen made similar remarks in a text to Jon Heyman of the New York Post, saying “We will be competitive in ’24 but I think 25-26 is when our young talent makes an impact. Lots of pitching in free agency in ’24. More payroll flexibility in ’25. Got a lot of dead money in ’24.”
Since buying the Mets in November 2020, Cohen has been quite open about his bigger-picture dream for the club — citing the Dodgers as the model, Cohen wanted to field a consistent contender with the resources to acquire premium free agents or trade targets, but largely fueled by star talent developed by the Mets’ own farm system. Cohen didn’t want to wait for that prospect base to be fully built before the Mets started winning, however, and said that he would spend heavily to make the team a contender in the interim.
As it has turned out, this initial plan might just result in one winning season in Cohen’s first three years running the club. The Mets were 77-85 in 2021, are on pace for a losing record this year, and even the 101-win performance last year was muted when the Padres ousted them in the wild card series. Rather than splurge again to restock a flawed roster for 2024, it makes sense that Cohen and Eppler might view taking a step back in order to hopefully two steps forward in 2025 or 2026, rather than continue to tread water in a competitive NL East. The Braves look like surefire contenders for years to come, the Phillies won the NL pennant last year, and the Marlins have also gotten themselves back into the playoff race.
The new direction opens a wealth of new possibilities for the Mets this coming offseason. It can be assumed that highly-touted youngsters Francisco Alvarez and Brett Baty aren’t going anywhere, if New York wants to expand its young core. Players recently signed to longer-term contracts or extensions (i.e. Francisco Lindor, Kodai Senga, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, Edwin Diaz) aren’t likely to be moved either, since this group will all still be around during the Mets’ new timeline for contention.
Beyond that core, it’s fair to wonder if any other Mets player might be on the trade market this winter. That includes Jose Quintana (signed through 2024) and Starling Marte (signed through 2025), as while neither has amassed much of a track record in 2023, the Mets have shown that they’re more than willing to eat money to accommodate trades. The biggest question mark might hang over Pete Alonso, as the slugger has one final arbitration-eligible year remaining before he enters free agency following the 2024 campaign.
Roster Resource projects that New York has roughly $204.2MM on the books for 2024 already, but a step back from contention might also logically mean a desire for the team to reset its luxury tax status. The Mets obviously blew past the highest tax levels in both 2022 and 2023, but getting out of tax territory entirely ($237MM is the lowest threshold level in 2024) would both reduce the team’s financial penalty, and more importantly the asset-related penalties attached with tax overages. For instance, the Mets would be able to sign qualifying-offer free agents for a lesser cost of draft picks, while also netting a higher draft return for any of their own free agents who reject a QO and sign elsewhere. In other punishment for incurring such a high tax bill in 2022, the Mets also had their first pick in the 2023 draft pushed back by ten slots, and their international signing pool was reduced.
If the Amazins aren’t planning to be big spenders this winter, that naturally has a big impact on this offseason’s free agent class, given how Cohen’s largesse has driven the market over the last two years. Given the relatively thin nature of the 2023-24 class, the Mets front office might be planning to capitalize by using some of their roster as trade chips, as rival clubs might not find what they’re looking for in free agency. As Cohen noted, there are plenty of interesting pitchers available following the 2024 season if the Mets do intend only a one-year step back, such as Scherzer again, Max Fried, Zack Wheeler, Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and many others.
Speaking Burnes and Woodruff, it would remiss if we didn’t mention the persistent rumors that the Mets will pursue David Stearns as the next president of baseball operations, as Cohen said last month that he is still looking to install a new executive above Eppler on the decision-making pyramid. Stearns’ contract with the Brewers is up after the season, and if the speculation is true and he does head to New York for his next job, it might make sense if Stearns eventually pursues some of his old Milwaukee players. That said, whether Stearns or someone else is the new president, it would make sense that the Mets gives the new hire at least a year to fully assess the organization, before turning back towards contending in 2025 or 2026.