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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Bill Madden

Bill Madden: Mets, Yankees spreading holiday joy in Big Apple with free-spending offseason

NEW YORK — When the dust began settling on what had been the wildest two weeks of spending in baseball history, Steve Cohen had emerged with a payroll of over $340 million and Hal Steinbrenner had shelled out $522 million on two players alone in Aaron Judge and Carlos Rodon.

For New York baseball fans, there has never been a holiday season like this, with Santa Clauses in both the Bronx and Queens doing what it takes to spread joy and winning all the way to next October. Going all the way back to the advent of free agency in 1976, this had always been the baseball lords’ biggest fear; that the large-market clubs in New York would flex their considerable financial muscles and bury their small and middle market cohorts. Only this year it was very different.

Yes, the Mets payroll — which will project to over $415 million when the 90% surcharge on every penny exceeding $293 million is factored in — is hideous. And believe it, the other owners, most of whom didn’t want Cohen as part of their fraternity in the first place, were furious when he soared over a record $300 million in only his second year as owner.

But unlike most of those owners, Cohen went into this offseason with eight primary free agents — position players Edwin Diaz and Brandon Nimmo; four starting pitchers in Jacob deGrom, Taijuan Walker, Chris Bassitt and Carlos Carrasco (who had a $14 million 2023 option); plus his two top set-up relievers, Seth Lugo and Adam Ottavino. In his internal discussions, Cohen prioritized re-signing Diaz and deGrom while privately conceding they might have to let Nimmo walk if, as expected, the lean center field market got out of hand.

And then, after signing Diaz to a record-setting deal for a closer (five-year, $102 million), three things happened that changed Cohen’s entire mindset: (1) The Rangers poached deGrom for a five-year, $185 million deal (which was two years longer than Cohen was prepared to go), (2) the Phillies, one of his top NL East rivals, signed shortstop Trea Turner to a stupefying 11-year, $300 million deal, and (3) Steinbrenner stepped up to the plate and went way out of his comfort zone with a nine-year, $360 million deal to secure Judge.

So what was Cohen supposed to do? Watch all the owners going crazy around him, let all his free agents go, and replace them with dregs to avoid going any higher over the $233 million first threshold of the luxury tax? In the end, after the Diaz signing, he wound up spending an additional $388 million on Justin Verlander, Nimmo, Kodai Senga, Jose Quintana, David Robertson, Omar Narvaez and Carrasco’s option. But it wasn’t nearly as irresponsible as it may look. He kept Verlander, Quintana and Narvaez to two-year deals and Robertson to one, and while eight years for the previously oft-injured 29-year-old Nimmo may have seemed like a bit of a reach, it kept his AAV to $20.2 million, more than reasonable for an All-Star-caliber center fielder. And like Judge with the Yankees, Nimmo had become one of the faces of the Met franchise whom Cohen could not afford to lose.

So in fact Cohen signed Verlander for $100 million less than what deGrom got, and signed Senga and Quintana for $101 million as opposed to the $135 million Bassitt and Walker got from the Blue Jays and Phillies respectively. This year Bassitt and Walker will make a combined $39 million to the $28 million Cohen will pay Senga and Quintana. Time will tell if Senga and Quintana are the better pitchers. More importantly, after 2024, some $175 million will have come off the Mets’ books, including the $24 million they still have to pay Robinson Cano this year.

In the coming days, the Mets will likely trade Carrasco, paring $14 million off this year’s payroll and after signing Narvaez, will also move James McCann and as much of the $24 million remaining owed to him as they can. Meanwhile, after the Rodon signing moved the Yankees’ payroll over $290 million, if they still want to sign a needed athletic, contact-hitting outfielder they will probably have to find a creative way of unloading as much as possible of the $50 million they owe Josh Donaldson and $29 million to Aaron Hicks.

Good luck there, but at least the Rodon deal, if he stays healthy, could actually be a bargain for them with an AAV of $27 million. Because he was the best starting pitcher on the market, his agent, Scott Boras, was trying to sell him as a bona fide No. 1 a la Max Scherzer ($43.3 million), Verlander ($43.3 million), deGrom ($37 million) and Gerrit Cole ($36 million). It is believed there were other clubs offering an AAV of $30 million-plus for Rodon but not the years. Plus, Rodon made it clear to Boras his preference was to go to the Yankees. Given GM Brian Cashman’s long history of acquiring starting pitchers who couldn’t stand up to the pressures of New York, it was refreshing for the Yankee high command to hear a free agent tell them he welcomed the opportunity to come to New York.

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