By Dan Schlossberg
The other owners should have seen this coming: by throwing bags of bullion out of airplanes, Steve Cohen has pushed the salary spiral into the stratosphere. For everyone.
In a sport where everyone knows what everyone else is getting, Cohen’s spendthrift ways have widened the disparity between richer and poorer, big market and small market. While his Mets may prosper — at least at the gate — the Reds, Pirates, Rays, and other clubs are approaching economic disaster.
Cohen is George Steinbrenner at his worst: a rich, overloaded owner willing to open his pocketbook in a sky’s-the-limit bid to buy a pennant.
During his days as owner of the Yankees, Steinbrenner was always the loudmouth who out-shouted and out-performed all other owners, landing such big fish as Catfish Hunter, Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson, and Dave Winfield — to cite four Yankee free-agent signees who reached Cooperstown — and many more.
Now Cohen, less than a week after giving carte blanche to brand-new general manager Billy Eppler, has added Max Scherzer, Sterling Marte, Mark Canha, and Eduardo Escobar — to the tune of $254.5 million so far.
That puts the Mets on track to become the first team in baseball history with a $300 million payroll (at the moment, it projects to $265 million but arbitration raises and further free-agent activity are a certainty whenever the lockout ends).
When one owner — any owner — behaves this way, it is bad for baseball. It forces every other owner to follow in the folly, signing over-the-hill players to big bucks just because they have big names.
What else would explain why Justin Verlander, nearly 39, would get a two-year contract for $50 million after missing all of 2021 with Tommy John surgery? And Scherzer, who cited a “dead arm” as his reason for bowing out of an elimination game in the NL Championship Series, getting three years at an annual average of $43.3 million? Never mind that he’s 38 and not likely to add a fourth Cy Young award to his trophy shelf.
The other signings smack of desperation too. Anxious to close the 11.5-game gap that separated the Mets from the World Champion Braves in the NL East, Eppler gave Eduardo Escobar $20 million and Mark Canha $26.5 million, both spread over two years, and Starling Marte a whopping $78 million for four years.
Marte can play center field, a long-time Mets sore spot, and supply speed, a commodity that left when Javy Baez signed with Detroit. But his play in center has declined — not surprising for someone pushing 34 — and Escobar will never win a Gold Glove at third.
Cohen, who complained bitterly on Twitter when Steven Matz rejected his overtures to sign with St. Louis, should have sucked up his losses, which also included Noah Syndergaard and soon-to-depart Michael Conforto in addition to Matz and Baez.
That’s the nature of the free agent game. But bullies with billions don’t always play fair.
Too bad my pressbox colleague Joel Sherman of The New York Post didn’t point that out. In his first column commenting on the Scherzer signing, he wrote, “I have always wondered what would happen if one of the extremely rich people who owns a baseball team used their outside wealth to essentially enjoy the heck out of their club regardless of cost. We might be finding out.”
Never mind that Scherzer will hit age 40 in the last year of his deal. Or that we have a Commissioner who could and should cancel the contract “in the best interests of baseball.” Or that both the owners and players are so greedy that can’t decide how to divvy up billions in profits — and to save the game from a shutdown just when it is recovering from Covid.
If anything good comes out of the stalled Collective Bargaining Agreement talks, how about a limit on the number of free agents any one club could sign? In a game with revenue sharing, wouldn’t player sharing make sense too?
In the meantime, here’s hoping Steve Cohen can stop gloating and start realizing that the teams who spend the most don’t always win. All he has to do is look at the payroll of the current world champions; the Atlanta Braves ranked 14th in the league last year and needed only six games to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team whose payroll was $100 million higher. Apparently, development of homegrown talent helps.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ covers baseball for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Here’s The Pitch. His e.mail is email@example.com.