The second year of Steve Cohen’s New York Mets’ reign didn’t turn out as he hoped it would when he bought the team for $2.4 billion.
Despite an MLB-leading $282.7 million payroll, the Mets lost their National League Wild Card Series to the San Diego Padres. Their 6-0 defeat in Sunday night’s Game 3 at Citi Field was not sold out. The Padres move on to an NL Division Series against the arch-rival Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday at Dodger Stadium. The Mets are scattered to the winds.
“This is a kick in the balls,” Mets pitcher Max Scherzer said.
In reality, the loss was a symptom of larger problems that took shape months ago, when the Mets began squandering a 10 1/2-game lead over the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves in the National League East.
Cohen has put big money into the team, rebuilding the front office around general manager Billy Eppler, the on-field baseball staff around veteran manager Buck Showalter and the team around two stellar starters.
The payroll that included shortstop Francisco Lindor for 10 years at $341 million and Scherzer at three years, $130 million. But the club is not built for the long term.
Jacob deGrom—who won Game 2, 7-3, with six innings of five-hit, two-run ball—has a $33.5 million contract for next season, but he can opt out for $2.5 million. Closer Edwin Diaz and outfielder Brandon Nimmo also will be key free agents. Scherzer’s average salary of $43.33 million is the highest ever.
The Mets were beaten on Sunday by Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove and his $8.6 million contract, a small slice of San Diego’s $236.7 million salary structure. (Musgrove signed a five-year contract extension worth $100 million with the Padres in August.) Forty-nine of Musgrove’s first 70 pitches were strikes, and he had a perfect game going until the fifth inning, when Pete Alonso singled to right.
In the sixth inning, Showalter had the umpires comb Musgrove for foreign substances when he took the mound, because of accusations circling on social media that his ears were shinier than normal. Much like the Mets in the series, the ump came up with nothing. But it did create an embarrassing scene that punctuated the soon-to-be lost season for the Mets.
“I’m charged with doing what’s best for the New York Mets,” Showalter added. “However it makes me look or whatever I’m going to do it every time and live with the consequences.”
Padres manager Bob Melvin, soaked with champagne, was particularly livid post-game.
“I tend to be a high-road guy, but the problem I have is that Joe Musgrove is a man of character,” Melvin said. “Questioning his character to me, that’s the part I have a problem with, and I’m here to tell everybody that Joe Musgrove is as above board as any pitcher I know. He’s a high-character individual.”
Like other new owners, Cohen has found the instincts and strategies that led to success in one business don’t necessarily apply. He made his money in hedge funds, where spending on acquisitions and dominating a market can lead to great returns.
In baseball, the day-to-day quirks of individuals in demanding circumstances play a bigger role. They’re going to perform the way they can perform, and managerial decisions—good or bad—are irreversible.
But there are patterns. Scherzer and Showalter followed their own.
Scherzer certainly seemed to pitch hurt in Game 1 of the series—a succession of oblique injuries that shortcut his regular season. He had no control of his fastball and allowed four homers, seven total, including the three he gave up in losing to the Braves the previous weekend.
“When my fastball’s flat and then running, that’s usually when I get hit a lot,” Scherzer said after Game 1, a 7-1 Mets loss. “Baseball can take you to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and this is one of the lowest of lows.”
Last year, pitching for the Dodgers, Scherzer came up with a sore arm and when he was most needed at the end of the NL Championship Series against the Braves he couldn’t pitch.
The Dodgers were forced to start Walker Buehler in Game 6 on three days’ rest. They lost the series. They have since lost Buehler to his second Tommy John ligament replacement surgery this season and he may not pitch again until 2024 just as Scherzer is embarking on the final year of his Mets’ contract.
Showalter, in his 21 years as a big-league manager now with his fifth team, has never proven to be a closer, and he couldn’t close the deal for this season’s 101-win team.
Showalter was fired by the Yankees in 1995. They won the World Series under Joe Torre in 1996. He was subsequently fired by the then expansion Arizona Diamondbacks in 2000. They won the World Series under Bob Brenly in 2001. He’s never taken one of his teams to the World Series.
Cohen is learning that lesson. The Mets regressed in the final month of the season, losing the division lead–and homefield advantage– to the Braves, before falling to the Padres in the Wild Card Series.
But they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Not only were the Mets swept by the Braves at Atlanta during the final weekend of the regular season giving the Braves a 10-9 advantage in the tiebreaker as both teams finished with a 101-61 record. But one win during the final weeks against outcasts like the Washington Nationals, Miami Marlins or Chicago Cubs would’ve given the Mets the division title.
Showalter said all that would be taken into consideration when the front office does its autopsy of the season. But he prefers to remember the good times.
“I’ll also think about the 10 or 15 games that we shouldn’t have won,” he said. “We’re down six or seven runs in the last inning, but nobody remembers those, all those games that you won that people don’t normally win.”
Cohen, meanwhile, curtailed his Twitter use after an offseason of tumult involving GameStop stock traders and enthusiastic Mets fans with ideas. Cohen re-emerged on the platform in April, sticking to basic updates and commentary as the team righted the ship, eventually holding a seven-game lead in the division on August 10. His most recent tweet, from Oct 5, reads:
Cohen hasn’t tweeted since, and Mets fans find themselves getting ready for another offseason.