If you told me on Opening Day that, on August 2nd, the Mets would be basically out of the playoff chase, starting multiple players I hadn’t heard of before tonight, and no longer have Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander on their roster, I’d have thought you were crazy. But here we are, with our eyes looking past 2023 and onto 2024.
And you know what? I think 2024 is going to be a good year.
In case you don’t want to read the whole thing:
- I’m confident that the Mets won’t sell off Alonso, but I also think they’ll not add any top 10 free agents.
- I think they’ll add a few lesser free agents — and probably one or two in the top 25 — to plug the biggest holes on the roster.
- I’m optimistic that doing the above will get them to an 87+ win season and a playoff berth
- I’d be shocked if the Mets do not make a real run at Ohtani, but I also would be surprised if he chooses the Mets — not because 2024 could be weak, but because there are other places he’d simply rather play.
Why? Let’s go.
Where We Are Right Now
First, let’s do some level-setting:
- The Mets have a lot of players under team control for next season
- The actually have room in the budget
- But there are huge, huge needs
- Oh, and the team they’re bringing back underperformed dramatically last year
- And none of the guys they traded for during the 2023 sell-off are going to help
The Status Quo: Players
When it comes to position players, the Mets are returning a full cast:
- C: Alvarez, Narvaez (player option)
- 1B: Alonso
- 2B: McNeil
- 3B: Baty
- SS: Lindor
- OF: Marte, Nimmo, Mauricio
- DH: Vientos, Vogelbach
- UT: Guillorme
There are other guys (Nido most notably) that may make the team when things all shake out, but if the Mets go with what they have right now, this is what you get. It’s a full lineup and perfectly viable.
The bullpen is similarly fine. Diaz, Ottavino, Raley, and Drew Smith make up a fundamentally sound core. (Ottavino has a player option.) Trevor Gott and the currently-injured Eliesar Hernandez are also arbitration-eligible.
The rotation, though? It’s … bad.
- Senga (great!)
- Quintana (ok)
- Peterson (eh…)
- Megill (um…)
- Lucchesi (omg)
The Status Quo: Budget
The Mets 2023 payroll is roughly $350 million, according to Fangraphs. (As of this writing, they have it at $346 million, but that’s actually a bit lower than what it should have been, because it omits the dollars the team recouped this year by trading away some players.) The team traded away Scherzer and Verlander, sending about $57 million with them, but the duo was owed roughly $87 million. So, the Mets actually shaved $30 million off their 2024 payroll. On top of that, the team is free of the (net) $20 million owed to Robinson Cano.
When you subtract that out as well as the money from expiring contracts, Fangraphs estimates that the Mets are currently on the hook for only (“only”) about $204 million next year. That doesn’t include the arbitration-eligible guys, but the only really notable one there is Pete Alonso. Let’s assume, possibly incorrectly, that the team simply gives him a one-year deal for $20 million. That puts them at ~$225 million, a far cry under the $350 million they were just at. The clear conclusion is that there’s money available — the question is, how much will the Mets spend, and on what?
The Four Ways Forward This Offseason
The Mets have four possible paths this offseason, excluding the Ohtani situation, which I’ll address separately. In order of likelihood:
- Do Almost Nothing
- Buy Big
Let’s explain each one and why I ranked them that way.
Path 1: Retool
In this scenario, the Mets spend about $50 million (in average annual contract value) to get two starting pitchers and a reliever or two. For example, say they get Yoshinobu Yamamoto on a five-year, $75 million deal similar to Senga’s contract and maybe grab Lance Lynn on a two-year, $26 million deal similar to Quintana’s. Substitute in other pitchers if you want, but that’s roughly a $30 million allocation to fill two of those starting pitching spots. And I think that’s basically what the Mets will do again.
Similarly, I think the Mets bring in a high-leverage reliever — maybe Robertson comes back! — just like they did last offseason. But I also think they learn from their mistake and add a second arm. Let’s say Trevor May, just to stick with familiar names. The two of them cost, total, $17 million last year (on a couple of one-year deals) and the Mets shouldn’t have a hard time hitting that number.
Finally, I think the Mets add a bench bat — Tommy Pham, redux — and maybe send Narvaez packing (and bring Nido back up) to recoup some dollars. That puts them in the ballpark of that $50 million investment. And at that point, they’re done. You roll with Peterson as the 5th starter, maybe move Megill to the pen, and not worry too much about the last bench player.
Can that team win 87 games? Absolutely. Alvarez, Baty, Vientos, and Mauricio can be a lot better than we think. McNeil, Marte, Lindor, and even Pete may have much better seasons. Quintana may be good for a full year and Diaz will be back. There’s a lot to be excited for here — and with the right additions, we can get to a playoff-level number of wins. Maybe we can even get to 95.
Could they also be an epic disaster? As 2023 showed, yep. The kids may stink, the veterans may fail to rebound, Senga’s walk rate may not come down, Quintana may show his age, our free-agent signings may bust again, and our bullpen may be a joke. The downside is all very much still there.
But if they go this way — and again, I think they will — I’m optimistic. The team I’ve outlined above is definitely good enough to compete and make a deep run into the playoffs, and if all goes well? At the deadline that high-end starter who is in the last year of a deal, and suddenly, you’re a bonafide World Series contender.
Regardless, I think this is where Steve Cohen and Billy Eppler are headed — and I’ll be very surprised if they do anything differently.
Path 2: Do Almost Nothing
The Mets could go into 2024 with, basically, a holdover roster from 2023, and not much else. A backend of the rotation with Peterson, Megill, and Lucchesi is bad… but it’s also something you could reasonably see happening if you squint.
I don’t think this is likely, at all — but there’s a possibility they’ll do this if it keeps them under a luxury tax threshold. I don’t think it will, though, and I’m including this path here mostly to show how shocked I’d be if the Mets sold or went on a massive spending spree.
Path 3: Sell
If you want to (a) get even more prospects and (b) get under a luxury tax threshold (or all of them), that’s doable. The Mets could be sellers this offseason — but there’s really only one path to get there. You have to trade Pete Alonso.
The Mets simply don’t have a lot left to sell. Almost everyone under team control is either really cheap (Alvarez, Baty) or on a deal that goes through at least 2026 (Diaz, Lindor, McNeil, Senga, Nimmo). As noted above, I think Narvaez could be traded regardless, so I wouldn’t include a trade of him in this scenario, but there are four others who could be: Marte, Raley, Quintana, and Pete.
Raley and Quintana each have value and combined are due $18.5 million next year (and are free agents after). Neither were moved at the 2023 deadline, suggesting that Eppler didn’t get the offer(s) he wanted. I don’t know what the asking price was, of course, but given how the team handled all of the executed trades, the goal wasn’t “save money.” (Cohen has previously said that he considered those contracts as “already spent money,” to paraphrase.) I could see a situation where the front office trades both to get more youth in the system, but I’d be surprised if either player is dumped for salary relief — the amount recouped isn’t quite enough to make a difference.
Marte, on the other hand, could be a salary dump. He’s owed a lot of money — $20.75 million a year for the next two years — and had an awful 2023. I think the Mets are basically stuck with him; they could pay most of his salary and they’d still not get anything back. Creative trades can happen (see Cano, Robinson and Kelenic, Jarred), though, but if the goal is to get under that salary cap, the Mets wouldn’t get much in return.
The only way that happens, though, is if the Mets are resigned to losing in 2024. And in that case, they all but have to trade Pete Alonso. Maybe not before the season but definitely by the trade deadline.
The case for extending Alonso is crystal clear — he’s a homegrown player who crushes the ball, and the Mets don’t hit a lot of homers otherwise. But the case against is also very clear. He’ll be 30 years old for the 2025 season — the same age Brandon Nimmo was for 2023 — and the contract needed to keep him would definitely surpass the $162 million, eight-year deal Nimmo received. If you’re not intending to compete in 2024, why spend $20 million and forgo the bounty of prospects you’d get for his services?
I don’t think there’s a meaningful chance the Mets go down this path, at least not during the offseason. (I could see them revisiting it at the 2024 trade deadline.) Trading Pete would cause the fan base to doubly erupt — it would signal that 2024 is dead and that the team doesn’t value its most notable homegrown player.
Path 4: Buy Big
This isn’t going to happen.
But let’s imagine it anyway.
Ohtani aside — we’ll get to him in a moment — there is plenty of talent out there this offseason, as there is every offseason. Before the 2023 season, the Mets spent a fortune extending Diaz, McNeil, and Nimmo and still added three top starters (Verlander, Senga, Quintana), Robertson, and Narvaez. They paid James McCann to go away and sent a low-level prospect to Tampa Bay to get Raley, who wasn’t all that cheap. And this was just a year removed from a huge investment to get Scherzer, Marte, Canha, and Escobar. They’ve spent big before: why not do that again?
Okay, the obvious reason why is because it didn’t work. Well, it worked the first time (2022) but didn’t the second (2023). But, I think, there’s a less-obvious reason: it’s just not sustainable.
Free agents are generally more expensive than the homegrown alternatives — and they’re also older. The net result is that you have to keep spending to make up for declines and injuries and the like, and even when you do that, you’re always at risk for a season like we saw in 2023. Further, the market supply may not match your current needs. If you need a third baseman (the Mets don’t, as far as I’m concerned) and the best free agent available is Josh Donaldson, well, draw your own conclusion as to why a “buy big” strategy won’t work.
The Mets learned this the hard way this year. Over the last two off-seasons, the Mets added six players who, in 2023, were age 35 or older. That doesn’t include Canha, Escobar, Marte, or Quintana — all of whom are now 34, or Carlos Carrasco (36), who was acquired the year prior. Of those 11 players, only two (Marte and Quintana) are on the roster for 2024. The team simply isn’t going to make the same mistake again.
As a result, think there’s simply no way the Mets give a three+-year deal to any free agent over the age of 33. And I don’t think they’re going to give a five-plus year, nine-figure deal to the younger free agents like Aaron Nola (31 years old), Lucas Giolitto (29), or Julio Urias (27). If they were going to sign one of them, they would have kept Verlander instead.
I could be wrong here. But I’d be shocked if any of those three are part of the 2024 Mets, and I’d be flabbergasted if they went more than a year or two on someone like Lance Lynn or Kyle Hendricks.
The Most Likely Path is Also the Right Path Forward
If 2023 taught us anything, it’s that being old and expensive isn’t good for a baseball team. And beyond 2024, the Mets are now nicely set up to be neither old nor expensive — but still be good. Outside of Ohtani, there’s no one player that is worth deviating from that plan dramatically. Given what’s out there, you’re much better off rolling with what you’ve got and retooling the Major League roster where you can.
Based on what we’ve seen over the last week and what we’ve heard from Cohen and Eppler, I think that’s the way they’re going. It’s not a team that’s going to win 101 games, absent something miraculous, but it’s also not going to be one that’s going sub-.500, absent something disastrous. And we’ve seen that miracles and disasters both happen, even when you plan for other outcomes.
If Cohen and the front office bow out of the free agent market virtually entirely, that’s a big miss — and one I don’t think will happen. If they sell, trading Alonso, yikes. That’s a bad decision, and I’m not happy with that being a reasonable possibility. But if they spend but not spend big, I’m fine with it.
Except: I think they should make a run at Ohtani. And I think they will.
The Ohtani Factor
The tl;dr version:
- The Mets will make one of the three best offers to Ohtani.
- He won’t take it.
- Talk radio et al will blame the 2023 sell-off for that result.
- That take will be wrong (but unprovable).
Just days before Christmas 2022 — after signing all the guys already discussed above — the Mets signed Carlos Correa. Well, kind of, sort of, almost. Steve Cohen’s rationale was simple: he was the missing piece to turn a 90+ win team into a 100+ win team.
That was wrong, of course, but it was still instructive: Steve Cohen isn’t going to let money stand in the way of the Mets being great. Steve Cohen has money — more than he’ll ever need and the rest of us can ever imagine — but like the rest of us (who are old enough to remember), hasn’t seen a Mets championship parade in nearly 40 years. Money can’t buy that, as we learned this year, but it definitely helps.
And there’s only one Shohei Ohtani.
Ohtani’s contract is going to be ridiculous — 12 years, $500 million, maybe? — and he’ll be worth more than that for the first half of the contract. The second half? Who knows, but that’s the price you have to pay to get the first half of it.
From a financial perspective, the Mets are well-positioned to make that offer. If they follow my expected “Retool” path, Cohen would easily be able to handle the $40 million+ to also add Ohtani. From a competitiveness perspective, Ohtani would truly be a missing piece on both sides of the puzzle — he’d elevate a good lineup to great and a potentially mediocre rotation to potentially a great one (depending on the other signings). The Mets are going to be in on Ohtani, and there’s really no reason to think any other team will be meaningfully outbidding Steve Cohen.
But: I don’t think Ohtani takes Cohen’s money.
When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars, a 10% haircut doesn’t hit all that hard. Ohtani isn’t going to choose a $500 million, 12-year contract from the Twins if the Dodgers are offering a $450 million, 11-year one — my guess is that he’d rather play baseball in LA than in Minnesota, with apologies to those in the Twin Cities. Yes, he’d be leaving money on the table, but is it really all that much? For the first 11 years, it’s roughly the equivalent of the Major League minimum ($720k). And retiring a year earlier while also being fabulously rich? For non-athletes, we’d call that a dream come true.
Ohtani is going to have a ton of offers and get to choose where he plays. This is rank speculation, but I’m betting he stays on the West Coast. It’s where he’s been his whole MLB career and it’s much closer to Japan than New York City is. Or maybe there are other factors that help him choose his destination. Money won’t be the only factor, and given how much he’s going to be offered (and likely from multiple teams), it probably won’t even be the main factor.
I do think that he’ll want to sign with a good team over a bad team, but I also don’t think he’s going to just look at the 2023 standings and conclude that the Brewers or Marlins are “good” and the Mets and Padres are “bad.” He’ll be signing a decade-long deal that eats up maybe 20% of his new team’s salary — it’d be beyond foolish to just look at 2024. If Shohei Ohtani wants to win a World Series or two before he retires, he should sign with a team that (a) has a pipeline of talent for years to come and (b) will spend on players to complement him. That sounds a lot like the Mets — but also the Dodgers and maybe the Padres, Orioles (crazy, right?!), Rangers, and probably a half-dozen other team. The 2023 season helps make the case for the Dodgers over the Mets, but the 2023 trade deadline helps make the case for the Mets over the Yankees, Red Sox, and about a dozen other potential suitors.
To Sum It All Up
I’m optimistic next year for two big reasons: the Mets core is actually pretty good, and the front office and Cohen will supplement it with enough talent to cover most of the holes nicely. It’s a good plan and you don’t need to win 100 games to make the playoffs; 87 gets you there (probably), and that’s absolutely within reach using that plan.Originally published on August 2, 2023