By now, it’s clear that Mets owner Steve Cohen has no intention of keeping the current front office structure in place. Initially, when he got control of the team, Sandy Alderson was brought back as team president to oversee the relatively young baseball operations crew led by Jared Porter and Zack Scott with the intention that he stay on for a relatively finite period before receding to the background as a consultant once Porter took over as president of baseball operations, chief baseball officer or whatever title they decided to use.
Alderson’s return was comparable to his first tenure with the Mets, albeit under radically different circumstances. As the Wilpons’ finances were in free fall after the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme came to light, Alderson’s hiring was tantamount to him serving as a bankruptcy trustee to keep the Mets from becoming untenable – like a failed state – and needing to be taken over by Major League Baseball itself as was the case with the Montreal Expos and the Frank McCourt Los Angeles Dodgers.
The current circumstance is exactly opposite with Cohen having enough money to buy every single sports franchise in the New York Metro area and other owners fearful of him burying them financially. Alderson’s presence was a calming influence since they knew about his aversion to overspending and he was in line with keeping costs reasonable. This was not an overt Quantum Leap-style reboot with Alderson getting the chance to do the things he wanted to do under the Wilpons but couldn’t because of financial constraints and meddling from Jeff Wilpon.
Now, as Cohen prepares to find a leader to steer the club, the obvious choice is Theo Epstein. Despite his flaws, there is no doubt that hiring Epstein is about as close to a guaranteed championship as an executive can get. Still, Epstein has been coy and relatively consistent in that he prefers his current role as a consultant to MLB and is, ironically, trying to undo much of what he did in turning the game into a slogging, dull endeavor where players are treated as fungible entities whose attributes are plugged into an arcane formula and spit out a desired result sans personality, nuance and strategic preference. It is largely due to Epstein that managers are no longer allowed to have “their” way of play.
There’s no Whitey Herzog who wanted speed, defense and aggression; there’s no Earl Weaver with his three-run home runs and deep starting pitching pushed to throw 275 innings; there’s no Billy Martin with his in-your-face style and tightly wound personality always seeming on the verge of punching whoever got in his path; there’s no Tommy Lasorda sitting at the corner of the dugout cursing up a storm, singing the faux narrative of bleeding Dodger Blue and treating his team like a fiefdom in which he was the Emperor.
The only holdout is Tony La Russa and he’s only managing the White Sox because owner Jerry Reinsdorf hired him personally.
These are all factors in the allure Cohen can sell to get Epstein to take charge of the Mets.
The selling points are as follows:
HE CAN FIX WHAT HE THINKS HE BROKE
Epstein seemed surprised and chagrined that the “children” he sired took his strategies and brought them to its logical conclusion and simultaneously created a rote way in which every team was run from top to bottom.
He will have the freedom to run the team as he wants and put together an organization that fits in with what he’s trying to change in his current role working for MLB.
There’s talk that for it to be worthwhile for Epstein to take over any club, he’d need an ownership stake. Owners are generally unwilling to just give away something so valuable. Often, it’s a negotiating ploy to increase the guaranteed money in the contract. It’s doubtful that it’s a deal breaker and if it is, he’s only reluctantly taking the job to begin with if he gets it.
Cohen can offer him a limitless amount of money to take the job.
THE LONG GAME
Appealing to a sense of history would not work with Epstein. He’s already made history. He’s going to end up in the Hall of Fame. What might appeal to him is the chance to run the team the way he always envisioned. One of the challenges he faced with the Red Sox was not building a championship team – he did that in year two. The challenge was to maintain. His goal was to create a sustainable operation that provided a pipeline of talent and was backed up by money within a reasonable budget. There would be lean years, but that was an accepted part of the strategy. Unfortunately, others didn’t see it that way and greed took hold.
After one championship in 2004 and breaking the Curse of the Bambino, he received one free year in 2005. By 2006, as he sought to maintain his farm system and rejected in-season trades to go all-in for another title, ownership, the media and the city of Boston grew restless. He was then forced to go for it in 2007. Winning that second title might have done more harm than good for his extended blueprint and culminated in the collection of mismatched stars to try and match the Yankees move for move, an indifferent clubhouse, a team of mercenaries and a complete collapse that precipitated his departure to the Cubs.
With the Cubs, he had a full-blown rebuild in front of him and turned the team around within four years, winning the championship in five. It looked as if he felt he’d accomplished his mission and was already looking toward the next venture. Epstein himself stated that he knows he’s better at building than maintaining. Perhaps that’s something he’d like to fix.
THERE IS A GOOD FOUNDATION IN PLACE
The Mets do not need to be gutted. Already, there are foundational pieces in Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor and Jacob deGrom. The farm system is not overly deep, but is top-heavy with players who are already being categorized as potential MLB All-Stars in Ronny Mauricio and Francisco Alvarez. For the 2022 draft, he will be armed with the 11th overall pick as compensation for the club failing to sign Kumar Rocker. If the 2021 season ended today, the Mets would pick 14th as well. That gives him infinite options.
With the money to spend – even if Cohen prefers to remain under the luxury tax – he can do essentially whatever he wants to build a title-contender and would have the ability to do it in a way where he does not need to mortgage the future as he did in his final years with the Red Sox and Cubs.
This is not to say that Cohen should simply give Epstein whatever he wants. The problem with hiring Epstein has become what NFL teams faced when they hired Bill Parcells. They could deal with the ego, the pettiness, the mind games, the desire for more money and control. What they always wondered was when he would up and leave and it was an annual waiting game. This is the same challenge the Jaguars will face – probably very quickly – with Urban Meyer. His wanderlust, greed and the self-imposed stress will limit his tenure and there might come a day sooner than anyone thinks where he up and resigns only to take a major college job three years later and start the process again.
Epstein has talked about situations growing stale and that front offices need to change to get fresh ideas. That’s fine, but if Cohen is giving Epstein the power, money and opportunity, then he needs a commitment that Epstein won’t decide one day he’s had enough and leave or, worse, do what he did with the Cubs and imply he’s going to leave a year or two before he finally does.
That aside, there is much for Cohen to offer and if Epstein wants his original vision to become reality, he’d need to consider it very seriously.