For the New York Mets, Yoshinobu Yamamoto is in a special category of one. According to people familiar with the club’s thinking, the Mets view Yamamoto, the 25-year-old Japanese star, as someone at the top of the market worth pursuing as closely as possible. In that regard, he stands alone as a player worth bragging about.
In other words, if the Mets can’t beat Yamamoto, expect their offseason to continue to play differently than the past two years. For example, owner Steve Cohen last year allowed the highest payroll in baseball history. This winter, the first under president of baseball operations David Stearns, the Mets have dealt a handful of one-year-only deals to complementary players or players looking to recapture past success.
So, if the Mets fail to land Yamamoto, they are not expected to simply turn to the second-best free agent available whether it be Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery. Somewhere at the next level, Lucas Giolito would theoretically be of interest to the club, but he could also end up leading a deal beyond the Mets’ preferred range. To find matches with the club’s line of thinking, keep looking down.
The Mets roster – especially the pitching staff – has holes, so they will remain active and spend money. But people familiar with the club’s thinking expect them to continue handing out one- or two-year deals here and there. This isn’t like last season when the Mets signed Justin Verlander but Carlos Rodon will likely be their expensive backup plan. It appears as if the Mets have a more focused approach to 2024.
Unless someone’s market changes in a significant way, the Mets aren’t expected to pursue someone who might make a big splash — with one exception.
Sources offered a few main explanations for Mets’ way of thinking.
For example, Yamamoto presents a special opportunity for any club because he is about five years younger than the typical free agent and has the advantage of being a forward-line player.
Also, many people within the industry see a recalibration year as a need for the Mets.
To be clear, under Cohen, the Mets are expected to continue to stay near the top of the league in payroll in the coming years. Even this year, the Mets’ payroll will pose a challenge for first place. But that’s part of the Mets’ problem. They are still running an expensive operation despite achieving modest results last year. They are paying nearly $70 million to players on other teams. This type of spending, along with the escalating tax penalties that accompany it, appears to be unaffordable no matter how wealthy the owner.
Given the amount of money likely to come off the Mets’ books, some familiar with the Mets’ thinking say New York is looking to next winter when they will have significant payroll flexibility. The Mets’ 2025 payroll is expected to be $119 million, as it stands, so it’s possible for them to completely reset the tax if they wanted to.
Thus, the show of caution in free agency this year may be purely circumstantial regarding where they stand as an organization and not indicative of how they intend to operate each year. Even now, with Cohen, the Mets don’t have to fully account for players until they sign elsewhere. But based on conversations around the league, the first season of the partnership between Cohen and Stearns appears to be one of some patience.
This clear path for the Mets shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Max Scherzer suggested that part of the reason he waived his no-trade clause at the trade deadline was because he was told the Mets would not be aggressive in free agency. Since the trade deadline, Mets leaders have suggested they will enter 2024 with lower odds of winning the World Series.
The Mets are more than a player away from being pegged as favorites for a deep playoff run. At worst, a recalibration year would give New York — especially in the first year of a new front office — an opportunity to learn more about their young players and farm system.
The Mets’ minor league system has improved but lacks elite pitching (competitive evaluators view their best pitching prospects as third-string starters). Starting pitchers is the highest form of currency in baseball, and the Mets don’t have a lot of it, which is another reason they’re in this position.
However, since taking over, Stearns has said the Mets will field a competitive team. On his first day, Stearns said the Mets should be in the playoff race. That’s a lower bar than it seems given the expanded format, but it’s a bar the Mets want to clear nonetheless.
To help them do that, the Mets are looking for pitching help, an outfielder for regular playing time and, preferably, right-handed hitting help at third base in the wake of Ronnie Mauricio’s injury, based on conversations with people familiar with the club’s situation. Thinking. The list may not end there, but these goals are on the horizon. For all of these items, it seems that price will be a deciding factor in determining what type of player they end up with. They are looking for affordability.
That is, except for Yamamoto, who will help now and in the future.
Like a handful of other serious suitors for Yamamoto, the Mets don’t know if they’ll secure his signature. However, it is an example of the Mets targeting a player and Cohen – as evidenced by his recent trip to Japan – are willing to do whatever it takes to get him. However, they may not end up with him. Either way, there doesn’t appear to be another player from the Mets’ perspective worth paying a premium for.
(Steve Cohen Photo: Brad Penner/USA Today)
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