The New York Mets find themselves in a difficult position. All they wanted for Christmas was Yoshinobu Yamamoto, but Santa delivered a boulder-sized lump of coal to Mets fans' stockings instead, and he did it four days early. Yamamoto has signed with the Dodgers, sparking talk of a superteam as he joins other recent additions Shohei Ohtani and Tyler Glasnow in L.A.
The Mets, who unabashedly centered their entire offseason around Yamamoto, are now left with a wilting bouquet of flowers and nobody willing to take them. Steve Cohen did all he could to land the pitcher that has been likened to a Japanese Pedro Martinez, traveling to Japan, hosting him at his home, and reportedly matching the Dodgers' historic $325 million offer, but in the end, it wasn't enough.
The Dodgers astonished the baseball world with Ohtani's record contract, which deferred nearly all of his $700 million salary and was clearly engineered with the intentionality of making this Yamamoto move possible.
Where do the Mets go from here? Their two biggest threats in the National League, the Dodgers and the Braves, have separated themselves from the rest of the competition by being smarter than everyone else, and one thing is clear.
The Mets need to adapt or risk being left behind.
The Dodgers have the same level of resources as the Mets, plus they play in Los Angeles. Pressure to win is high, but it's different than in New York, where the media scrutiny has chewed up and spit out otherwise capable players in the past. L.A. has only one World Series win in recent years, but their regular season dominance has been consistent enough to all but guarantee that any player that signs with them will have the chance to compete in the postseason. The Mets simply can't say the same, despite Steve Cohen's best efforts to build a winning culture.
By deferring the bulk of Ohtani's contract, the Dodgers have found a way to go from baseball superpower to baseball supervillain. Few teams can compete with the financial resources that L.A. has at its disposal, and by being the first team to dive headfirst into the mega-contract deferral waters, the Dodgers have separated themselves even farther from the pack, conjuring an advantage that borders on competitive imbalance.
The Braves don't have the same sort of monetary upper hand as the Dodgers or the Mets, but they've made up for it by innovating in their own way, locking up their young stars well before they hit the market. This has resulted in team-friendly contracts for the likes of Ronald Acuna, Jr., Ozzie Albies, and Spencer Strider. As these players have established themselves as bona fide stars, they've easily outperformed their contracts, giving Atlanta a phenomenal return on its investment.
The next few years for the Mets are absolutely critical. Steve Cohen has made it clear that he's in it to win it, but he needs to sell players on more than just how much money he's able to pay them. He needs to learn from the Dodgers and the Braves, or risk the Mets becoming an afterthought in the National League.
David Stearns should help. The Mets' new president of baseball operations is respected for his baseball and business acumen. Combined with Cohen's wallet, that provides a solid foundation for the Mets to start from.
The first order of business is being respected in the baseball community. If the Mets' reaction to losing out on Yamamoto is to rage-spend on overpays for multiple free agents, that's not smart management. It reeks of desperation, and desperation is not part of a winning culture. Mets fans know what it's like for their team to be the laughingstock of the league, and we don't need to see any more of it. The Mets need to be seen as a destination, not a fallback option that exists just to drive up the price with the team that stars really want to sign with.
Secondly, the Mets need to emulate the Braves by locking up their own players early. They failed to do that with Pete Alonso, and as a result are in a sticky situation as the slugger gets closer to free agency. They shouldn't make the same mistake with Francisco Alvarez, who expressed interest earlier this month in a long-term deal. Not only will it keep Alvarez in Queens for the foreseeable future, it will send a message to other young players in the organization, such as Brett Baty, Jett Williams, Drew Gilbert, and Luisangel Acuna, that the sooner you make an impact, the sooner you get paid.
The Ohtani contract deferral is such a unique situation. It could end up just being an anomaly, as most players would prefer to be paid up front, or it could become a trend. The main lesson the Mets need to learn is to be willing to think outside the box. The Tampa Bay Rays have finished ahead of the Boston Red Sox the last five years, and ahead of the Yankees three out of the last four. It takes more than money to win.
Losing Yamamoto stings, but how the Mets react will tell us more about where this franchise is headed. Steve Cohen and David Stearns are trying to build a consistent winner. Let's see if they know how to do it.