Right now, the Mets lead the league in only one category — being told no.
Executives and players have been doing it for more than a year.
Steve Cohen expressed his anger at the latest rejection early Wednesday morning, taking to Twitter to excoriate Steven Matz’s agent, Rob Martin, for “unprofessional behavior.” Cohen picked up that thread in a phone call not long after, insisting the agent misled the team about how much the lefty was prioritizing returning to the Mets.
Here is a key point: Whether he shunned or used the Mets (pick your verb), Matz agreeing to a four-year, $44 million pact with the Cardinals is a symptom, not the sickness. I have seen this contagion before. I was the Yankees beat writer for this paper in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The Yankees were not just terrible on the field. But, under George Steinbrenner at his most unhinged, they were perceived as a dysfunctional clown show.
The best executives rejected opportunities to work for them. The best free agents involved the Yankees to juice up the bids with no intention of ever calling The Bronx home. My first winter (after the 1989 season) covering the Yankees, the top free agents were Mark Davis, Rickey Henderson and Mark Langston. Each feigned Yankee interest. Each signed elsewhere. The Yanks were forced to overpay second-rate starters like Tim Leary and Pascual Perez to bribe them to New York.
Nothing changed until after 1990 when Gene Michael became the general manager. He had good fortune. Steinbrenner had just gotten suspended. Bill Livesey and Brian Sabean were assembling one of the greatest homegrown mother lodes ever. But Michael philosophically had beliefs about what kind of players to pursue. A year later he hired Buck Showalter to manage. That helped bring a layer of previously missing professionalism. In 1993, the Yankees began winning and haven’t stopped since.
Billy Eppler counts Michael as one of his most important mentors. He is the Mets GM now. If he wants to carry this forward, Showalter is again available as the manager.
But the major element here is that the Mets have to take every slight and rejection — up to and including Matz — and use that as fuel to fix the organization. And it can be fixed — it is not in worse shape than the 1990 Yankees. This should be a jewel, considering the size of the Mets fan base and Cohen’s bank account, intelligence and ambitions.
It is not going to happen overnight, of course. The Wilpons left a mess. In Year 1, the Cohen regime didn’t make it better. But this is another deep-breath moment. Let’s assume the worst intentions for Matz and Martin. That they overheated the Mets in the past four or five days. That they got Cohen on a couple of Zoom calls so that the lefty and his agent could sell how much the Long Island kid wanted to return home. They sold proximity to family, reuniting with pal Jacob deGrom and addressing unfinished business in Flushing.
In the end, Matz was staring at the Cardinals and the Mets. Which would you pick? An organization that just made the playoffs for a third straight year or one that has never done that in its history? An organization that in this century has made the playoffs 15 times and won two World Series or one that has made it nine times — ever — and is without a title since 1986? An organization of stable leadership that just charged to the playoffs in the second half of 2021 helped by five Gold Glove defenders or one that just collapsed in the second half and currently cannot portray an overall team strength?
Like in many things in life, negotiations tend to have a “Rashomon” quality; that each side sees and hears what it wants. But even if the Matz contingent was dishonest and dishonorable, you can see why St. Louis was more appealing. Plus, as one veteran agent texted me unsolicited after reading Cohen’s tweet, “Well, Mr. Cohen, for better or worse, you better get used to it. This is the world we live in.”
I find it hard to believe the baseball world would be more sharp elbowed and disingenuous than what Cohen deals with in his day job, but if so, then consider it a lesson. By the way, it is not a new lesson. The Mets thought they had Trevor Bauer signed last offseason only to see him go to the Dodgers. Sometimes not signing a guy you want is a blessing. I would think that Matz has a good chance of falling into that category; that the Mets should have been more leery that he was Leary.
Just a year ago the Mets were trading Matz to Toronto for organizational pitching depth. To be willing to do four years at $44 million now provides another deep-breath moment — why were the Blue Jays able to improve Matz’s results to the point he was such a desired piece on the market?
This is part of the big-picture project; for the Mets to just become a better organization top to bottom. To be able to find the best players and then make them better. They have the locale and resources to do just that. Matz ultimately is going to be a footnote. Symptoms always are. Addressing the sickness is what is vital.