Steve Cohen just slapped his Amex Black card on the counter, and bought free-agent relief pitcher Trevor May. It's not the kind of splash Mets fans have drooled over since Cohen commandeered the club from the Wilpons, but that's a good thing.
If the Mets need a lesson in biblical spending binges that rarely lead to World Series rings, they need only gaze across the East River to the team on River Avenue. The Yankees dynasty of the 1990s was built largely by their farm system, supplementing the roster with seasoned players through trade or free agency. Once the Yankees won their fourth Fall Classic in five years, they slowly morphed into Larry Lucchino's Evil Empire, making it rain on free agents at alarming rates without the desired results.
What do Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Raul Mondesi, Gary Sheffield, Jose Contreras, Jose Abreu, Robin Ventura, Randy Johnson, and Kevin Brown have in common? They were all bought during hot stove seasons starting in 2000, cost the Yanks a combined $400 million, and didn't bring a single ring. Indeed, not one of them was around when the Yankees won the 2009 World Series. Granted, 2009 was the one season when free agent gorging actually worked, and the Yankees brought in CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett. But that haul was blessed beyond bank as high character players who played without egos or agendas and were all hungry for their first world championship.
If we added A-Rod and Hideki Matsui's money, that $400 million balloons to around $800 million. Since Matsui and A-Rod were instrumental in winning the '09 World Series, we omitted them from the original list, but that's still $800 million on free agents for one ring. If you include Teixeira, Sabathia, and Burnett's contracts, it mushrooms to over $1.2 billion, again, for one ring since 2000. And during that decade they only developed one true star from their farm system: Robinson Cano.
Mets fans have every right to expect Cohen to crack the Top 10 in MLB payroll. For too long the Mets have played and paid like a mid-market club, and haven't dwelled among the 10 highest payrolls (over a 162 game season) since 2011. Cohen can fix that, and doesn't have Bernie Madoff hanging over his wealth like the sword of Damocles. But there's a big difference between wise, well-placed spending and the reckless, feckless financial orgies that rarely spawn any success.
The Mets can thumb through the dark pockets of their own archives to the “Worst Team Money Could Buy,” the 1992 squad with Eddie Murray, Darryl Boston, Vince Coleman, and Bobby Bonilla - the last of whom they are still paying today. That club lost 90 games and then 103 the next year, and the franchise was lost in a black hole for years to come.
So while no one would complain if Cohen bagged Trevor Bauer and George Springer, he might be wise to stop there, and leave JT Realmuto, Jackie Bradley Jr, Masahiro Tanaka, and others for other suitors. Though Realmuto is a fantastic player, he will require many years and megabucks - a big risk for a near-30 catcher who will start breaking down in the next few years. In terms of pitching, adding Marcus Stroman back to the rotation and signing Bauer would be a big score, and should be the final score. If Taijuan Walker is such a tantalizing pitching talent, then why has he played for three organizations by age 27? Jose Quintana turns 32 in January, pitched just 10 innings last year, and has made one All-Star team in nine big-league seasons.
The Mets have flashed an aptitude for this sort of thing. They signed RA Dickey as a free agent, then flipped him for Travis d'Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard. They signed Carlos Beltran in his prime, then later dealt him for a young Zack Wheeler. The architect of those deals, Sandy Alderson, is back in the house. And as much fun as fans had with bashing some of Alderson’s less savory deals, it's just silly to question his baseball IQ. The Harvard Law grad and Marine Corps officer did build the only Mets club that's been to the World Series in the last 20 years. The Mets also have a nice core of homegrown players, from Dominic Smith to Michael Conforto to Jeff McNeil and the Polar Bear, Pete Alonso, so they only need to remold, not reboot.
In the meantime, the Mets already look more competent than they did a month ago. Just as a solid baseball club is built up the middle of the field, a sound and smart franchise starts at the top and trickles down. The top two Mets have the means and the brains to make them winners - as long as they spend wisely, and not wildly.
Follow Jason Keidel on Twitter: @JasonKeidel