Mets confident they have a championship-caliber club, cautious about how little that guarantees

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — New York Mets owner Steve Cohen surveyed the reporters risking sunburn to hear what he had to say.

“Was I supposed to prepare a speech?” he asked. “What would you like?”

A man worth somewhere north of $17 billion should be careful about throwing around questions like that (a brownstone in Brooklyn, if that was a serious inquiry, Steve), but if there's a moral to the Mets' most recent season, it's that there are some things money can't buy.

Forget that part for a moment, and it feels like we were just here: a little ways north of Miami along Florida’s Atlantic coast, in a city of sprawling shopping centers and chain restaurants and proximity to posh golf courses, asking the Mets about the conversion rate between payroll and something fans can pin their hopes on.

A year ago, the media flocked to Mets camp because Cohen had splurged on Max Scherzer, Starling Marte and Mark Canha (etc. etc.), building a behemoth with expectations so grandiose it felt like they should schedule ring fittings along with the in-take physicals.

Cohen famously said when he bought the team in 2020 that if the Mets didn't win a championship in three to five years, he would "consider that slightly disappointing." It certainly seems like Cohen is a guy who usually gets what he wants, so long-suffering Mets fans were more than happy to imagine themselves as the beneficiaries.

And yet: “If there was ever one thing I'd like to get back, it’s that one,” he joked Monday about his oft-cited timeline.

A heady summer gave way to a crash course in one of baseball's most maddening truisms: Anything can happen in October. After 101 wins and an all-too-familiar final weekend fall from first place, the 2022 Mets were ousted at home in a three-game wild-card series against the San Diego Padres.

Almost four months later, Pete Alonso considered what he learned from that experience, which was his first time playing in the postseason.

“Um, to be honest, it doesn't really matter how you get there,” he said. “I guess the biggest advice to myself in the future — and you can remind me of this when we get there — is just have more fun.”

When is a weighty choice of word, especially for February, because the Mets do have to get there first. And as baseball yawned back to life in Mets camp over the past week, two common themes emerged: confidence that this is a championship-caliber club and caution about how little that guarantees.

The ironic thing is that if you did construct a team specifically to succeed in the condensed crapshoot of a playoff series, it would probably look like the 2022 Mets.

“I think the two aces model is a pretty good model,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “I think we've seen it with other organizations where it worked pretty well.”

Then he rattled off some examples — pitching tandems you've probably heard of. That said, there's at least one instance of a couple of aces who actually cost their team the chance to advance in October: Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

But baseball people like to talk about process over results. “So we've kind of set that up again,” Eppler said, “and put together a team to feel good about.”

Another offseason of gobbling up high-profile free agents and breezing past the competitive balance thresholds meant to slow spending has once again made the Mets a focal point of the forthcoming season. Keeping some of the key pieces from last year proved to be expensive in the current market, but even the best pitcher in the world was apparently replaceable for a price.

On one of the first official days of camp, Scherzer threw a bullpen alongside his new co-ace: reigning AL Cy Young award winner Justin Verlander, whom the Mets signed after deGrom departed in free agency. They were each throwing to catchers new to them — Scherzer to newly acquired Omar Narváez and Verlander to Tomás Nido. Between emphatic glove pops and the occasional emphatic expletive, both veterans — together they have 32 years of big-league service, 445 wins and 5,845 innings pitched — critiqued their catchers’ glove placement.

Later Scherzer explained that it’s important for catchers to provide a steady target in the strike zone, something that has been deemphasized in recent years in favor of pitch framing. He feels an obligation to correct it, though, because “the young pitchers can’t say anything.”

That shouldn’t be a problem on this team. Verlander turned 40 on Monday and is second among active MLB pitchers in career innings. Scherzer will be 39 later this summer and is fourth on that list. Behind them, the Mets replaced Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker with José Quintana (34) and Kodai Senga (30). Carlos Carrasco (36 next month) was part of last season’s haul. Their annual salaries range from $13 million for Quintana to $43.33 million for each of the Big Two.

Free agency and trades for veterans is an expensive way to construct a rotation — and a bullpen, if you bring back your sensation of a closer on a deal that sets a record for relievers. But an internal review this offseason yielded the assessment that the prospect talent within this organization was primarily on the offensive side. So while the Mets wait for the player development overhaul to bear fruit, pitching needed to be purchased at market rate.

That's how you end up with a payroll so high that the general manager tries to downplay the disparity between the rest of the league by using historical comparisons to record-spending teams. The payroll is so high, in fact, that Cohen stands to lose some significant amount of money this year.

“I’m not going to give you a number,” he said, “but it’s bigger than a breadbox.”

He stressed Monday that this is just stage one of building a sustainably competitive organization. Perhaps as a concession to his fellow owners, who have reportedly balked at his outsized spending, he was explicit about how an improved farm system would eventually allow him to carry a lower payroll; this is just the "bridge" to get there.

Still, his willingness to invest now makes him an exception in the industry.

“I made a commitment to the fans, and it wasn’t a short-term commitment,” Cohen said. “When I do something, I don’t do it halfway. When I’m in, I’m all in. I don’t accept mediocrity well. I have certain high expectations, and if it requires me to invest in this club, then I'm going to do it.”

But remember: It takes more than money.

Verlander has two rings already, the most recent earned mere months ago. He knows he is "blessed" (lucky, really) to have them to pair with all of his individual awards. During his time in Houston, the Astros made it at least as far as the AL Championship Series every season — six times in a row. Sure, October can be unpredictable and even unfair, but there's gotta be something underpinning that kind of consistent postseason success.

“It helps you know that you can do it,” Verlander said. “I don't know if that makes you any more well-equipped to do so.”

It's too early to say if a clubhouse with eager, unfulfilled World Series aspirations feels different than a clubhouse with World Series aspirations and a recent track record of achieving that goal.

“I know that these guys know that we’re good, which is a huge step,” he said. “Just accepting the fact that we have those expectations is part of it. But then, you know, there's a difference between accepting those and expecting the results. I think we should expect those results.”

After they were eliminated last year, Alonso and Francisco Lindor each addressed the team. It was bittersweet — the end of a season to celebrate, a season squandered. It had to be frustrating, disappointing, demoralizing. But later, at least, Lindor seemed at ease.

“I try to be at ease every single day,” he said, looking back. “Doesn’t mean I’m not mad. Even if I’m mad, I try to be at ease. Can’t just be throwing chairs and flipping couches and mother f-ing everybody.”

The Steve Cohen era of Mets business is embodied on the baseball field by Lindor. The charismatic shortstop came to Queens in a trade ahead of 2021, but his $341 million extension on the eve of the first Opening Day under Cohen signaled a dramatic shift from what had been and heralded the no-holds-barred ethos that has since come to define this team.

In only two seasons since, the Mets' growing gravitational pull has warped the landscape of the sport. It's impossible to talk about their expectations in terms of anything other than World Series wins, which means spring training is just the first of many months that will be spent weighing whether they're moving closer to or farther from that conspicuous not-quite destiny.

By those on the outside, anyway.

But inside: “The culture is here already. And the culture is here to stay,” Lindor said. “These are my brothers. We’re gonna compete, we’re gonna work hard, we're gonna try to find a way to win. When we don't win, we come back tomorrow and try to win. It’s pretty simple.”

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