You know the old saying about correlation not implying causation? Well, sometimes the two are related. A look at the highest payrolls in MLB reveals that the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets lead the pack. The Dodgers and Mets also happen to have the best winning percentages in baseball.
That the Dodgers are on top of both these standings isn’t shocking: this is a team that won it all in 2020 and entered the year as favorites in the National League. The Mets, however, are used to being second in both spending and winning in their own city thanks to crosstown rivals, the Yankees.
However, that was before Steven Cohen became the richest owner in baseball by buying a majority share of the Mets away from the much-loathed Fred Wilpon for a whopping $2.4bn in 2020. Wilpon signed on as a minority owner in 1980, became the majority owner of the team in 2002 and then lost a good chunk of his fortune as part of the Bernie Madoff scheme in 2008. Since then, the Mets have won the NL East exactly once, in 2015, although they did manage to make it all the way to the World Series that go around.
Just having money to spend is no guarantee of success, of course. But owning a large-market team in a sport without a hard salary cap should be a huge advantage. The Mets would surely have had more success in recent times with an owner who hadn’t lost a fortune in one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history.
So, in comes Cohen, a lifelong Mets fan. He quickly made a splash by acquiring shortstop Francisco Lindor – who the team later handed a $341m extension. Unfortunately, money alone wasn’t enough to appease the Baseball Gods in 2021. Lindor floundered in his first year, the Mets missed the playoffs yet again and then had to watch their NL East rivals, the Atlanta Braves, win the World Series.
This offseason they completed a fearsome starting pitching rotation by signing Max Scherzer to a three-year, $130m contract. The Mets payroll is now close to $300m and they may increase that next season. And why not? As more and more MLB owners have fallen into the profitable habit of fielding more affordable but less competitive teams, Cohen is right to take advantage of his financial advantage now, rather than wait for the trend to reverse.
And in 2022 Lindor has had a bounce-back season, the brilliant Jacob deGrom has returned to the starting rotation and Edwin Diaz has the coolest intro music in baseball (as well as becoming arguably the best closer in the major leagues). Plus, the Yankees are stumbling right when the Mets are playing their best baseball. All is well at Citi Field right?
Just one thing: they are not running away with their division. The Mets’ most recent trip to Atlanta ended with them dropping three out of four games. While the Dodgers have essentially clinched the NL West already, the Mets are four games ahead of the Braves in the NL East – a healthy lead but hardly an insurmountable one.
As has been the case for the longest time, the Braves’ strategy has been less about writing big paychecks for free-agent signings or going after big-name trade acquisitions. Instead, the Braves – who, it should be noted, are hardly poor with MLB’s ninth-highest payroll – prefer to invest their capital in homegrown players, handing them hefty, long-term contracts in the hope that they will be stars for years.
Last week, the Braves signed rookie outfielder Michael Harris II to an eight-year, $72m extension. This was shortly after they signed All-Star third baseman Austin Riley to a $212m, 10-year deal. By concentrating on younger players, the new Braves are trying to replicate the success of the old Braves who clinched 11 straight division titles around the turn of the century.
“The number one thing I worry about is being sustainable,” general manager Alex Anthopoulos said recently regarding their payroll. It’s about steady, long-term success rather than relying on the splashy move.
Each strategy has risks: veteran players tend to break down as their contracts go on, a fact of baseball life that the Mets know as well as anyone. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to consistently successfully bet on which prospects will pan out in the long run. Plus, sustainable regular season success doesn’t always translate into the postseason: during that run of consecutive NL East titles, the Braves only managed to win the World Series once. Maybe they could have made bolder swings here or there?
This is setting up a false dichotomy of sorts. The Mets are relying on some of their young talent as well. The aptly-named Brett Baty crushing a home run in his first major league at-bat may be the highlight of the Mets’ season so far, catcher Francisco Álvarez is considered the best prospect in baseball and more experienced stars like Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil came up through the draft. Likewise, the Braves roster isn’t fully homegrown, they even have former Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen saving games for them. However, it’s clear that there are two different organizational philosophies at work here and that could make for a fascinating rivalry going forward.
With Atlanta’s World Series win last year, the Mets are the only team in their division that has yet to win a championship this century. No wonder Cohen is willing to spend a fortune to please a fanbase that has been waiting decades for a new miracle.