Baseball’s Mets investigation will seek to answer what Steven Cohen knew
By Michael S. Schmidt and Ken Belson
Major League Baseball, which is investigating whether the New York Mets’ front office cheated by putting healthy players on the injured list, will examine whether the team’s owner, Steven Cohen, knew or should have known if his team was breaking the rules, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The investigation — which will look at a range of individuals, from trainers to baseball operations personnel — will put the conduct of Cohen’s team under scrutiny three years after he bought the Mets for about $2.3 billion. Four years earlier, he walked away largely unscathed from a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation in which he was accused of failing to properly monitor an employee of his hedge fund who went to prison for insider trading.
There are two motivations for looking at the conduct of Cohen, the game’s wealthiest owner and one of its most controversial, as part of the investigation, one of the people said. The first is that the office of the commissioner, Rob Manfred, wants to demonstrate to the public and team owners that it takes allegations of cheating seriously and has turned over every rock. The second is that it wants to ensure that Cohen’s history — which, even though he was never personally found liable for any wrongdoing, worried owners before he bought the team — has not bled into his running of the Mets and its front office culture.
Representatives from the Mets and MLB declined to comment because the investigation is continuing.
The investigation into the Mets began when an anonymous whistleblower sent the commissioner’s office a letter that said the team’s general manager, Billy Eppler, had put at least one player on the injured list this year even though the player was not injured.
The commissioner’s office does not know who sent the letter. Among the possibilities is one of the Mets’ trainers, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. At least one of the trainers is said to have acknowledged to others this season that he was concerned that the team was breaking the rules because a player who was healthy was put on the injured list, according to the person.
Declaring healthy players to be injured may not have as direct an impact on a game as, say, stealing catcher’s signals to their pitchers. But it can have a significant impact on a team’s ability to retain players. Each team has a set number of players it can keep control of during the season. But if a team puts healthy players on the injured list, it increases the number of healthy players it can carry without having to part ways with them or allow other teams to claim them.
Putting healthy players on the injured list can also have implications for whether they achieve bonuses for time spent on the field or reach certain performance thresholds. Less playing time often leaves players with lower stats when they try to make an argument to teams in the future that they should be signed and paid more.
Many in baseball have played off the practice as being just part of the game. But the letter to the commissioner’s office is said to have had a more dramatic impact. Manfred has expressed concerns in recent years about how baseball has fostered a win-at-any-cost mentality in front offices that pushes ethical bounds. And fans criticized him for not doing more to punish the ownership of the Houston Astros after the team was found to have cheated when it used video cameras to steal signs during its World Series-winning 2017 season.
The letter, which the commissioner’s office received in the past two weeks, included other accusations about Eppler’s conduct as general manager, according to one of the people familiar with the matter, although it’s unclear what those were. The commissioner’s office in New York, which is leading the investigation, plans to look into those as well.
So far, Cohen is said to have been cooperative with the commissioner’s office, according to one of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the active investigation. Investigators plan to cast their nets wide and seek cellphone data, text messages, emails and medical records as they try to determine what happened and who knew about it. They also plan to talk to players, front office personnel, and training and medical staff, the people said.
The Mets announced Monday that the team had hired a new president of baseball operations to oversee the front office, including Eppler. As part of that announcement, the team made it a point to say that Eppler, who was hired in November 2021, would stay on as general manager. But on Thursday evening, the Mets announced that Eppler was stepping aside. Shortly after, The New York Post reported that he had resigned after the Mets were informed of the investigation.
Before Cohen bought the Mets, some other team owners wanted to block the purchase because of his checkered legal history. But Manfred helped persuade owners to approve the sale. Since then, Cohen has failed to win over many owners and has clashed, at times, behind the scenes with Manfred. This season, Cohen spent a record $370 million, plus $100 million or so in luxury taxes, on player salaries, which antagonized owners who feel he is distorting the free agent market.
Cohen has been ensnared in investigations over the past decade. In 2016, he and the SEC reached a deal that barred him from managing money for outside investors for two years after the agency accused him of failing to adequately oversee Mathew Martoma, a trader at SAC Capital, the former big hedge fund that Cohen led.
In 2014, Martoma was convicted on charges that he used inside information to generate profits and avoid losses totaling $275 million while working at SAC. He received a nine-year sentence in federal prison.
Cohen was not charged with any criminal wrongdoing and did not admit or deny any wrongdoing in settling with the SEC. In the settlement, the SEC blamed him for ignoring red flags that should have prompted him to question whether Martoma was engaging in insider trading.
In 2013, SAC pleaded guilty to insider trading charges and paid a record $1.8 billion penalty. The hedge fund had to return outside money to investors.
Since then, Cohen has largely managed his own $11 billion fortune through Point72 Asset Management, although the firm has taken in money from outside investors.
Cohen has taken steps to increase compliance and oversight at Point72 to show that improper trading would not be tolerated. Point72 created the position of chief surveillance officer and signed a deal with Palantir Technologies, a software company that receives backing from the CIA, to monitor trading.