'Restock and reload': Mets' big financial experiment takes a turn

August 2nd, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- The most ambitious financial experiment in Major League history has morphed into something completely different. The Mets, the most expensive baseball team ever assembled, spent the days before Tuesday’s Trade Deadline not just shedding salary, but aggressively paying down contracts to land a franchise-changing glut of young talent.

The most significant piece of that machinery fell into place about three hours before the Deadline. The Mets sent pitcher back to his old team, the Astros, for two Minor League outfielders. As the Deadline approached, New York also moved outfielder to the D-backs and reliever to the Angels, both for prospects. The Mets then completed a fourth, ancillary deal, purchasing relievers Phil Bickford and Adam Kolarek from the Dodgers for cash.

Adding to the Mets’ previous trades of starter to the Rangers, closer to the Marlins, outfielder to the Brewers and infielder to the Angels, the deals took seven players off the Mets’ 26-man roster and added eight prospects to their organization. Seven of the eight now rank among their Top 25 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline.

Astros receive: RHP Justin Verlander, cash
Mets receive: OF Drew Gilbert (Astros' No. 1 prospect; No. 68 overall), OF Ryan Clifford (Astros' No. 4 prospect)

Diamondbacks receive: OF Tommy Pham, cash
Mets receive: SS Jeremy Rodríguez (unranked prospect)

Angels receive: RHP Dominic Leone, cash
Mets receive: INF Jeremiah Jackson (Angels’ No. 9 prospect)

Mets receive: RHP Phil Bickford, LHP Adam Kolarek
Dodgers receive: Cash

General manager Billy Eppler used the word “expedite” multiple times in describing his strategy, which allowed the Mets to bolster their farm system in a fashion that would typically take years to achieve. But it came at a cost, both in terms of dollars and short-term competitiveness.

Put together, the Mets are paying around $85 million for Verlander, Scherzer and others to play elsewhere. Should Verlander’s 2025 contract option vest, that number could rise to around $100 million. The Mets accepted this because owner Steve Cohen can afford it, and the move allowed them to access prospects who would otherwise be off-limits in such trades.

“We’re just trying to restock and reload a farm system,” Eppler said. “You have to go through a little bit of pain to get to where we want to go. But I feel like the organization is making strides toward a better future.”

If nothing else, the direction of the organization is now clear. Last week, the Mets faced a potentially complicated future. Scherzer was primed to opt into a $43.3 million contract for next season, Verlander was guaranteed the same amount on the second year of his deal, others were in the midst of massive contracts, and there were no assurances the Mets could improve upon the sub-.500 record they’ve produced this summer. Now, with Scherzer and Verlander gone, the Mets are preparing for 2025.

That does not mean the team intends to “punt” on next season, to borrow a word from Eppler. But the GM indicated he plans to be more judicious in free agent spending than he was in handing out nearly half a billion dollars in contracts last winter. While the Mets will supplement their roster, particularly with pitching, they do not appear eager to shop at the top of the market and hamstring themselves with long-term deals. Instead, the club will make minor improvements, accept relatively low playoff odds in 2024 and attempt to be prime competitors in ’25 and beyond.

“Every team has a right to do that,” Scherzer said Tuesday at his introductory press conference in Texas. “I totally get where they’re coming from. I understand from roster construction, with what was going on in New York, that that’s the decision they had to make. It’s tough making those decisions, but that’s why they’re paid to make the big bucks.”

By 2025, the Mets feel young players -- Francisco Alvarez, Brett Baty and Mark Vientos -- will be squarely in their primes. Prospects including Gilbert, Luisangel Acuña, Ronny Mauricio and several high-level pitchers should be ready to contribute in major ways. Veterans like Francisco Lindor, Brandon Nimmo and Kodai Senga will also still be in their physical primes.

What becomes of those whose contracts expire after next season, including Pete Alonso, is another question. Asked Tuesday about Alonso, who homered against the Royals in a 7-6, 10-inning loss Tuesday at Kauffman Stadium, Eppler said he intends to chat with the first baseman in the coming days. The Mets still see Alonso as an important player for them, a fan favorite and an organizational steward. But Eppler stopped short of committing to him as a franchise pillar. Should they desire, the Mets will still have an opportunity to trade Alonso this offseason or next July. They can do the same with pitchers José Quintana, Brooks Raley and Adam Ottavino -- three others whose contracts run through 2024.

“Whatever their vision is, whatever their plan is, it really doesn’t necessarily matter to me because I’m here right now,” Alonso said. “I want to be the best player I can be right now and for as long as I’m here. It could be forever. We’ll see what happens.”

The future holds plenty of intrigue for Alonso and others. With a flurry of trades prior to the Deadline, the Mets solved many of their problems. They also created new issues they will need to tackle over the next 18 months. Ultimately, the Mets are here because the most expensive roster in Major League history -- “It looked good on paper,” Eppler said -- could not play well enough to avoid this fate.

Rather than double down on one style of roster building, the Mets are trying another.

“We have the resources up top to buy players,” Lindor said. “But when you create that formula of having successful players come up, develop and help us win up here, and you have the resources, it can turn into something extremely fun.”