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The Mets found a lack of access or interest at the top of the executive market earlier this season, unable to lure a Theo Epstein or Chris Antonetti or David Forst to be their president of baseball operations.
They pivoted, lowering their sights to just hiring a general manager and, a source said, that selection is due soon with Diamondbacks assistant GM Jared Porter and Red Sox assistant GM Zack Scott the favorites. Porter is better known in the game. Scott, though, is said to have interviewed well with the Mets. The hiring of either would generally be viewed as the Mets deepening their quality of good baseball people.
What if the Mets do the same with their roster?
At this point, the Mets have won for two of the better players below the top tier of free agents, agreeing on a two-year, $15.5 million pact with reliever Trevor May and moving to the doorstep of a four-year agreement for just more than $40 million with catcher James McCann.
I still assume the Mets will sign one of the big free agents, probably George Springer, maybe Trevor Bauer, before this offseason is over. But what if May and McCann are not an appetizer, but a strategy? What if the Mets decided, in Year 1 of the Steve Cohen regime, the best way to not only contend instantly, but also to set themselves up long term, is to use the new owner’s deep pockets to build the roster and payroll with high-end depth?
Would Mets fans feel that layering the roster with talent (but no big stars) while climbing toward a $190 million-plus payroll is a sensible first step? Or would they feel betrayed? Do they feel that the switch from the Wilpons to Cohen was to give them everything immediately — depth and stars?
The star available at catcher was J.T. Realmuto, who almost certainly was going to need more than four years and come in at triple the overall price of McCann — likely more. But one NL executive said the Mets should have gone for Realmuto, calling what McCann received “bananas,” considering he was non-tendered two years ago and has no track record of sustained excellence with a No. 1 catcher’s workload. Another NL executive concurred, wondering if a 450-plus plate appearance season would particularly expose a weakness in McCann versus righty pitching and provide “a very generic catcher offensively” for $10 million-plus annually.
An AL executive, though, saw McCann’s leadership as important to the Mets’ efforts to steer toward a better post-Wilpon culture and said the player was smart and hard working and, thus, the upgrades of the past two years are not fluky, but rather part of a later-in-the-career evolution to an above-average, total-package catcher. The AL executive said: “When he talks about pitch framing, he is not mouthing words. He knows why he got better at it and understands the concepts.”
Having Cohen’s resources allows the Mets to gamble more comfortably on projection that McCann is now among the handful of best catchers in the game, since he is now being paid that way. But what else will Cohen’s money buy? He is in such good stead right now with his fellow Mets fans that he probably will not want to disappoint. That means the Mets would add a Springer or Bauer or DJ LeMahieu — maybe a combination. But what if the steely businessman in Cohen sees dominating the second tier as the best immediate path? What would that look like?
The first steps were May and McCann. What if on top of that — as an example — the Mets also landed Liam Hendriks, Jake Odorizzi, Masahiro Tanaka and Jackie Bradley Jr.? None of those players were made qualifying offers, thus, an organization, like the Mets, trying to restock their system would give up no draft-pick compensation (which they would with Springer, Bauer, LeMahieu or if they had done Realmuto). McCann’s four-year deal almost certainly would be the longest given to anyone in this group, thus, the future risk would be mitigated.
One of the best ways to improve quickly is to have bullpen depth, and Hendriks is the best free-agent reliever available, though, like McCann, he was designated for assignment in 2018. The Mets’ end game then would be Edwin Diaz, Hendriks and May — and possibly Seth Lugo. The rotation would be Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, David Peterson, Odorizzi and Tanaka, with Noah Syndergaard percolating in his return from Tommy John surgery. Stroman and Syndergaard would be entering their walk years, so if Odorizzi and Tanaka each received a couple of years, that would provide the Mets protection beyond 2021.
Bradley is a lefty hitter, which does not fit the Mets well. But he is a terrific defensive center fielder and a winning player who proved in Boston that he can handle a big market well. With that deeper pen, the Mets could — for example — trade Jeurys Familia for the righty bat of the Rockies’ Ian Desmond. They have nearly identical amounts left on the final year of their contracts in 2021, and Desmond can play all over and hits lefties well (providing even more overall depth).
Add these types to the core of deGrom, Lugo, Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo and Dom Smith, and the Mets certainly would have a playoff contender while potentially saving money and prospects for the July trade market — and beyond. But is the promise of Cohen for more? Now?
At this point, the new Mets owner has given his admiring fan base intriguing appetizers in May and McCann. Will there be a main course?