NEW YORK — Just outside the window of Steve Cohen’s office at Citi Field, a crane peeks its neck high into the air, finishing preparations for the installation of the largest videoboard ever to grace a baseball stadium. Off in the distance sits a 50-acre parking lot that Cohen envisions turning into an entertainment hub, a place people can gather before and after taking in a game with the team he has determined will be the biggest and best and smartest and winningest: the New York Mets.
Two years after buying the Mets for $2.4 billion, Cohen is settling into a number of character types — some of them willingly, some assigned to him. For Mets fans, he is a godsend, the richest owner in the game, happy to spend his money to bring the team its first World Series championship since 1986. For locals, he is a salesman, though at least one who is soliciting their input on how the parcel of land can benefit the community. For some baseball owners, he is a pariah, an ostentatious, new-money dissident whose astronomical payrolls threaten the sport. For most, he is an inevitability. He seems the distillation of what a New York owner can and should be — a godsend and salesman and pariah all at once, with broad enough shoulders to juggle the three. It’s reminiscent of no one more than the archetypal New York owner, George Steinbrenner, who took a historic franchise in the Yankees and supercharged it into an international brand.
“George seemed bigger than life and passionate about baseball and brought a lot of life to the game,” Cohen told ESPN last week in a rare one-on-one interview. “He made baseball interesting. And he did it his way. I’m going to do it my way. I don’t know if I’m making baseball interesting.”
Cohen undoubtedly is. With spring training a week away, the Mets enter the 2023 season as perhaps the most fascinating team in baseball — and arguably the finest, too. Cohen guaranteed nearly $500 million to free agents this winter and will carry baseball’s largest payroll ever in 2023. It runs in stark contrast to his predecessors, the Wilpon family, who operated the Mets more like midmarket straggler than big-market behemoth. But the Mets aren’t simply following the blueprint of Steinbrenner’s later years, either, by focusing only on free agency.
Spending, Cohen said, is just one part of the formula he plans to employ with the Mets. If there is a new product on the baseball side, Cohen wants to know whether it’s worth trying. If other teams are excelling at player development, Cohen wants to know how the Mets can replicate it. If technology can enhance the fan experience, Cohen wants to be at the forefront.
Understanding the rhythms of baseball took time. It’s a slow game and a slow business, lacking the everyday urgency of the hedge fund he runs. Still, plenty of similarities exist. In both, Cohen is hunting for value, relying on experts to inform him of the right moves and, most of all, trying to win.
“I didn’t know I was going to have to spend like I did,” Cohen said. “I actually was a little naive in that regard. But once I got comfortable and realized, OK, what’s it going to take to put a great team on the field, I still had made a commitment to the fans, and to baseball, that I was going to come in and turn this thing around. I came in saying I’m all-in. And I keep my word.”
COHEN’S OFFICE is sparse, with plenty of space to decorate when the Mets give him reason to hang celebratory photos on the walls or add a display case for the Commissioner’s Trophy. A couple of chairs, a couch, a desk and three monitors that follow the markets and allow Cohen to trade make up most of the decoration. For most of last year, the Mets resembled a team capable of filling those walls with the souvenirs of a deep postseason run. A late-season collapse doomed them to the wild-card round, where the San Diego Padres made the 101-win Mets look like frauds. It was the one part of the Mets’ season that resembled the Wilpon era: an ignominious end.
As much as it frustrated Cohen, he was likewise emboldened. Until the Mets built up a proper farm system, they would need to somehow find big-league-ready talent to supplement the current core and replace the litany of free agents coming off the books. So began the team’s free agent spree, which started before any other team’s, on the day after the World Series.
It was like a pure dopamine drip for Mets fans, with a new free agent signing seemingly every day when the market was hottest. Familiar faces returning (Brandon Nimmo, Edwin Diaz, Adam Ottavino), big names arriving (Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga), complementary players (Jose Quintana, Omar Narvaez, David Robertson, Tommy Pham and Danny Mendick) joining the fun. When Cohen went after Carlos Correa and agreed to pay him $315 million over 12 years, Mets fans didn’t even bother worrying about the long-term health of Correa’s right leg that had caused San Francisco to terminate its deal with him. Cohen could afford it. The Mets-Correa deal fell apart for the same reason his deal with the Giants did, and as much disappointment as there was, the simple fact that Cohen went so aggressively after Correa won him even more appreciation.
“We’re in New York, and I’m competitive,” Cohen said. “If you’re going to own a team — I came in with a commitment that I was going to put a good product on the field. And I think I’ve done that. I had no idea what it was going to cost to put a good product on the field, but I’m in a position where I make a good income, right? So I can do this.”
Going into the 2023 season, the Mets are carrying a competitive-balance-tax payroll of $369.9 million, according to calculations by Baseball Prospectus. It would smash the previous record of $299.8 million, set by the Mets last season, and would come with a luxury-tax penalty of $98.6 million, more than five teams’ entire CBT payrolls currently.
The flurry of spending — which is the second-most this winter behind the Yankees — has raised concerns among owners about the game’s financial disparities. Owners of lower-revenue teams in particular have taken issue with the Mets’ payroll, sources said, though the spending of the San Diego Padres — a small-market team with MLB’s third-highest payroll — dispels the notion that teams without the Mets’ advantages can’t compete.
“I’ve heard what everyone else has heard: that they’re not happy with me,” Cohen said. “I hear things from people who are maybe more neutral — that they’re taking a lot of heat from their fans. I kind of look at that like, you’re looking at the wrong person. They’re putting it on me. Maybe they need to look more at themselves.
“I’m not responsible for how other teams run their clubs,” he added. “I’m really not. That’s not my job. And there are disparities in baseball. We know that to be true. I’m following the rules. They set the rules down, I’m following them.”
The rules, negotiated by MLB and the MLB Players Association in a new collective bargaining agreement that ended the league’s 99-day lockout last March, introduced a record bump in the base CBT threshold, from $210 million to $230 million last season. Throughout negotiations, MLB had been reticent to increase thresholds — and also called for harsher penalties for offenders. The union held firm on its priorities to increase the CBT and limit penalties, and the spending this offseason boomed despite the introduction of a fourth threshold, this year at $293 million, which has earned the nickname in industry circles as “the Cohen Tax.” The MLBPA bet that the new threshold wouldn’t be a deterrent for the eponymous tax — and it was right.
“I didn’t think it was that big a deal,” Cohen said. “I was already going to be in a big bracket anyway, no question. So it’s like the government raising taxes. You’re already in a high bracket. What I think about is making income. If I make income, it solves problems. It’d be great to get the payroll to the point where I don’t have to pay tax anymore. That’s the goal. If we do our job and develop a farm system and get a nice, sustainable pipeline going, we should be able to accomplish that. The [Los Angeles] Dodgers did it. The Dodgers — what was their payroll in 2015?”
It was $297.9 million, a record that held until the Mets’ final payroll last season of $299.8 million. The Dodgers that year were 57.6% above the $189 million base threshold — almost identical to the 58.8% the Mets project to be over the $233 million threshold this year.
Perhaps the best comparison — and one that illustrates the Mets’ spending isn’t out of line with past teams’ — is the 2004 Yankees. In the second year of that incarnation of the CBT, the Yankees exceeded the $120.5 million base threshold by $83.6 million — 69.4%. Their total payroll, including taxes, of $229.2 million exceeded that of the next-highest team, Boston, by more than two-thirds.
This year, the Mets take on that role. Including penalties, their payroll is projected at $468.5 million — more than $150 million higher than the next-biggest: The Yankees’.
Besides the Mets and Yankees, five other teams’ payrolls project to exceed the base threshold, according to Baseball Prospectus: the Padres ($267.3 million), Philadelphia Phillies ($247 million), Toronto Blue Jays ($242.4 million), Dodgers ($238.5 million) and Atlanta Braves ($234.3 million). Altogether, luxury-tax penalties are projected to exceed $152 million, with the first $3.5 million going toward paying player benefits and half of the remaining figure — about $75 million — going to a commissioner’s discretionary fund that distributes money to revenue-sharing recipients that have consistently grown local revenue.
In other words, the entirety of a brand-new revenue-sharing component will be funded entirely by a baseball team from New York. And it’s not the Yankees.
AS COHEN’S CULT STATUS among Mets fans continues to grow — he received a standing ovation at a New York Islanders game a week ago — he needs to remind himself: It’s not always going to be this way. The Boston Red Sox have won four World Series since John Henry bought the team, and he got booed mercilessly by fans all winter. When austerity, or Cohen’s version of it, comes to the Mets, that will be the truest test of the goodwill he has built up and whether it’s deep and lasting or simply a function of the novelty of an owner who not only says he wants to win but acts like it.
In recent months, he has attempted to grow that reputation outside of Citi Field: He held what the Mets deemed “community visioning sessions” to connect with Queens residents about their hopes for the development adjacent to the ballpark in Willets Point, Queens. Cohen wants entertainment and food and perhaps a convention center and lodging. The possibility of a gaming hub — with sports betting now legal in the state and New York ready to distribute three downstate casino licenses this year — could turn the spot into a destination.
But in the end, he knows, his mark will be made when the Mets win another title. And if the players he signed this year don’t get that done, he knows what Mets fans now expect. Shohei Ohtani and Manny Machado are free agents after this year? Get ’em. Juan Soto is gone after the 2024 season? Make it happen. (Cohen is mum on these topics, having learned his lesson with Correa: Talking publicly about players who are under contract or free agents is an absolute no-no.) The biggest signing between now and then might be a new team president to replace the departing Sandy Alderson, though Cohen said: “My bar is pretty high and I don’t feel in any rush. I’m going to wait for the right person.”
Eventually, Cohen said, he hopes the Mets’ farm system can provide the sort of bounty that precludes the team from relying so heavily on free agents to fill the major league roster. Currently, it features an exceedingly hitter-heavy prospect group that ranks among the middle of the pack in MLB. Catcher Francisco Álvarez and third baseman Brett Baty debuted in the big leagues last season and are regarded among the best prospects in baseball, with the elite sorts of exit velocities that often portend success. Both of the Mets’ first-round picks last year, catcher Kevin Parada and shortstop Jett Williams, have impressed scouts, and with outfielder Alex Ramirez, shortstop Ronny Mauricio and third baseman Mark Vientos, the Mets boast a plethora of types: the tooled-up potential star, the hard-hitting talent with questionable swing decisions and the big-league-ready, bat-first masher.
Missing: the ace of the future. The Mets’ minor league pitching is relatively barren, and as much as that bothers Cohen, it intrigues him in a way, too, because he doesn’t want the Mets to be baseball’s version of nouveau riche. He aspires to master an area so few teams have cracked because it takes time and effort and creativity and problem-solving skills — to leverage the brainpower in the Mets’ front office, as well as the staffers at Cohen’s hedge fund, Point72, who are spending about a quarter of their workweek on the Mets.
“I’d love to develop some pitching,” Cohen said. “Pitching’s really expensive. And I don’t know why we can’t. Other people can. At some point we will. The goal is to eventually get our payroll down to something more normalized for a New York team.”
“What I thought was normalized turned out to be a lot higher,” Cohen said. “So I don’t know the answer to it. I always say this: I don’t create the world, I gotta live in it.”