Steven Cohen sets high expectations for the Mets. Very high.
By David Waldstein
No one yet knows what kind of baseball team owner Steven Cohen will be once games have been played and performances can be measured along with wins and losses.
In Cohen’s first offseason at the helm, New York Mets fans have gotten a taste that their new owner, when properly motivated, can spend like George Steinbrenner. But will a bombastic and impatient side suddenly appear at the first sign of a losing streak? Or will he demonstrate a hands-off patience, the way Nelson Doubleday once did as the Mets’ owner?
It will take time to learn Cohen’s in-season tendencies, a process that began Monday night in Philadelphia, where the game played by a familiar script from previous seasons. A solid start by Jacob deGrom had the Mets staked to a lead through seven innings, only for the bullpen to collapse late in a 5-3 loss.
Just hours before the first pitch Monday, Cohen made clear that his expectations were high: As in, championships, plural.
During a video conference call with reporters, Cohen discussed his expectations and his choice to give star shortstop Francisco Lindor a 10-year, $341 million contract extension. The deal makes Lindor the cornerstone of the team, now and into a future that Cohen believes will include multiple golden trophies for a franchise that hasn’t won one since 1986.
“I think he is going to lead us to division titles, pennants and World Series championships,” Cohen said of Lindor in a prepared statement before taking questions from reporters. “He’s all in. I told you I’m all in, and this should leave no doubt.”
Cohen, a billionaire hedge fund manager, would not say later whether all of that would happen in 2021, but he added, “I do believe we are going to make the playoffs, and once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen, right?”
But how will Cohen react if those expectations are not met? Would Luis Rojas, the manager whose contract option for next year has not yet been picked up, or Sandy Alderson, the president of baseball operations, eventually pay the price if the team did not fulfill the new owner’s demands?
So far, whether through his jocular Twitter account or in interviews, Cohen evokes the image of the agreeable, avuncular kind of owner more than a stern taskmaster. But he has only been in charge of the team for five months, without seeing a single real at-bat.
In that time, however, Cohen has done his part as owner. He signed Lindor to the largest contract in franchise history — and the largest ever given to a shortstop. He committed more than $90 million to several other players, including catcher James McCann and pitchers Taijuan Walker, Trevor May and Aaron Loup. (He also made a substantial offer to the offseason’s top free agent pitcher, Trevor Bauer, but Bauer chose instead to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers).
It is now up to the rebuilt Mets to realize Cohen’s expectations.
“I can’t hit the ball, I’m not pitching,” Cohen said of his ability to impact the team. “It’s ultimately up to the players. You can lay down all sorts of plans, you can acquire players, you can promote players, but ultimately it’s up to them to play.”
He added: “We are there to support them and to adapt if we need to adapt. But I think our organization has prepared the team to perform well, and obviously we need to be flexible as the season progresses, right? The goal is to win. That’s the mantra, and I know the players want to win, too.”
Cohen lauded Alderson for what he called a “phenomenal trade” that brought Lindor to the Mets in January from Cleveland. Alderson, who was also on the call, returned the favor, remarking that the parameters under which he works have changed noticeably from those established by Fred Wilpon, Saul Katz and Jeff Wilpon, the triumvirate that sold the team to Cohen late last year.
“It’s different, certainly,” Alderson, who had been the Mets’ general manager from 2010 to 2018, said in an unmistakable reference to the Wilpon/Katz dynasty’s unwillingness to spend as lavishly as Cohen has. “I’m much appreciative of the support that Steve has shown in a variety of different ways, including financially.”
Cohen said that he is finding his “sea legs,” as an owner, which prompted Alderson to hark back to comments that Cohen had made when he assumed control of the team in November.
At the time, Cohen warned that he would not spend irresponsibly like a “drunken sailor.” But in what is certainly more music to the ears of Mets fans, Cohen also declared, “We are going to act like a major market club.”
That has not always been the case in Flushing.
During the negotiations with Lindor, Cohen said, he had several social interactions with the player, forming a bond. Part of that was a result of Cohen’s in-laws (the parents of his wife, Alex Cohen), who are from Caguas, Puerto Rico, the same town Lindor is from. Cohen called Lindor “special” several times on the call and said he had been optimistic a deal would be struck because of the enormous amount of money he initially put on the bargaining table.
Cohen eventually came up from his first offer, and Lindor came down from his initial ask, with the pair meeting near the middle. But in what could be seen as a warning to future free agents, Cohen said that pursuing something desirable cannot be done at any cost.
“Because of my experiences in the art market and the business world, I’ve learned to be very disciplined and I hope that was reflected in how I handled the negotiations,” he said of the discussions with Lindor. “No guarantee it was going to happen. I wanted it to happen, but not at the expense of making a bad deal for myself.”
Alderson and Cohen also answered questions on other topics, including whether there had been any progress on discussions for contract extensions with Michael Conforto, deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. Cohen said there had been general conversations with all relevant players but reported no notable progress or expectations with any of them yet.
Cohen said he supported the decision made by Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of the new Georgia voting laws, which many say are aimed at restricting access to Black voters.
“I know the commissioner made a well-considered decision and I respect that,” Cohen said.
Cohen and Alderson were also asked about coronavirus vaccinations for players. Some, including on the Mets, have expressed reservations about taking the shots, which Alderson acknowledged. He encouraged the players to get vaccinated, as he has, he said, and added that medical staff will be on hand in Philadelphia to educate the players about the process.
Cohen added that there was hope that attendance at Citi Field, which for now is restricted to 20% because of the pandemic, will go up during the course of the season.
“I’m optimistic, given the pace of vaccinations, that the state and city will loosen up capacity restrictions as we go along.”