Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 22, 2022

Steve Cohen is Dragging MLB into the 21st Century

A NOTE TO READERS:  With holidays the next two Sundays and personal travel plans next Thursday, On Sports and Life will be taking a brief break.  The regular schedule will resume on Thursday, January 5th.  Whether your traditions include singing carols, eating sufganiyot, or the Airing of Grievances, may the coming days be free of stress and filled with wonder.  As always, thank you for reading.

It turns out Steve Cohen wasn’t done.  Less than a week after this space was dedicated to discussion of the New York Mets record $75-$80 million luxury tax bill, Cohen swooped in when the San Francisco Giants hesitated on finalizing their 13-year, $350 million contract with shortstop Carlos Correa, based on something – fans may never know what exactly – the team’s medical staff saw in the results of Correa’s physical.  The late-night deal that saw Correa switch from one coast to the other and from shortstop to third base is for $315 million over a dozen years, enough to drive the Mets offseason spending on free agents to more than $800 million, the franchise’s roster commitments for next season to $384 million, which with more than $111 million in luxury tax added will mean a total payroll in Queens of nearly half a billion dollars.

As has been widely reported, that tax figure alone is more than the salary commitments of one-third of MLB clubs.  The Diamondbacks, Orioles, Reds, Guardians, Royals, Marlins, A’s, Pirates, Rays and Nationals are all currently set take the field on Opening Day with a 26-man roster being paid less than $111 million.  Luxury tax bills are based on the 40-man roster and aren’t calculated until the end of the regular season, so the popular comparison making the rounds is a bit misleading, and much could change between now and then.  But there’s no reason to think Cohen will suddenly decide to try dumping salary at the trade deadline, and, sadly, even less cause to believe that those other clubs will step up and start spending.

Correa’s move, engineered by his agent Scott Boras, is unusual but not entirely unheard of.  Fans are so used to hearing the rote language “subject to a physical” when a new contract is announced that most simply ignore it.  But from time to time a deal falls apart over a medical issue, and once in a very great while a marquee contract comes undone, for that or other reasons.  Shortly before Christmas 2003, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein believed he had worked out a blockbuster three team deal to bring superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez to Boston from the Texas Rangers.  But A-Rod still had seven years left on his $252 megadeal, and Epstein didn’t want to commit to that level of spending.  Rodriguez agreed to a salary reduction in exchange for getting an annual opt-out provision in a revised contract.  However, that ran afoul of the Players Association, which is understandably never in favor of its members agreeing to a cut in pay.  The deal collapsed, and a few weeks later Boston’s archrival in the Bronx stepped into the breach, sending second baseman Alfonso Soriano and a prospect to Texas for A-Rod, with the Rangers kicking in a portion of his annual salary.  The Rodriguez comparison is especially apt because just like the 2023 Mets with Francisco Lindor, the Yankees back then already had a superstar shortstop in Derek Jeter.  Both A-Rod in 2003 and Correa next season will move to third base.

At the time, of course, there were plenty of complaints about the evil empire in the Bronx adding yet another big name and even more salary dollars, something that so many other franchises simply couldn’t do, according to the familiar old argument.  But the carping looked a little hollow when it took the Yankees six years and the 2009 addition of pitchers CC Sabathia and AJ Burnett, first baseman Mark Teixeira, outfielder Nick Swisher, and the re-signing of left-hander Andy Pettitte from Houston before New York returned to the Fall Classic and captured its 27th championship.

The same is true for the Mets.  However strong the team looks on paper, it is the daily grind of the longest season that will tell the tale.  It is worth noting that for all Cohen’s spending, until the Correa signing the Mets had largely been busy either keeping current players – closer Edwin Diaz, outfielder Brandon Nimmo, or replacing departed ones – Justin Verlander for Jacob deGrom, Jose Quintana for Chris Bassitt, Kodai Senga for Taijuan Walker.  Still, the owners, executives and fans of low budget teams will continue to complain, when they should instead be looking in the mirror.  All 30 teams are in line to receive a $30 million windfall from last month’s purchase by Disney of the portion of software developer BAMTech that was still owned by MLB.  Plus, the teams on the bottom of the salary list will each receive its share of the tax paid by those teams that exceed at least the first threshold.  In addition to the Mets, that current includes the Yankees and Padres, with the Phillies, Blue Jays, and Atlanta all knocking on the door, one major trading deadline acquisition from going over the first limit.  Teams like the A’s (projected $49.5 million 26-man roster) and Pirates ($58.2) are effectively funding salaries from the Disney money and their share of the luxury tax, while putting all the usual revenue streams – tickets, concessions, local and national TV contracts – in the owner’s pocket.

The good news is that other, more enlightened owners, are starting to step up.  This has been a record offseason for player spending, and not just because of Cohen.  While the complainers cite the ten teams spending less than Cohen’s tax bill, eleven others are projected to spend more than $200 million on 40-man rosters.  That’s four more than last year.  The guess here is that just like Cohen, none of those owners will need to start a GoFundMe page to cover their spending.

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