With Steve Cohen, there is no Wilponian uncertainty about willingness to spend. Only about the wisdom to do so.
The person asking that question to Steve Cohen the past several days has been Steve Cohen. He has had a trade proposal on his desk for much of the last week in which the Mets would absorb about half of Eric Hosmer’s remaining four years at $59 million to gain access to much needed pitching depth now and for the near future with starter Chris Paddack and reliever Emilio Pagan.
Cohen was considering this transaction before it was known Jacob deGrom had a shoulder injury that should cost him at least two months and Max Scherzer a hamstring issue that could prevent him from taking his first turn. That only accentuates the need for more pitching.
But are these the right pitchers to ship Dom Smith to San Diego and take on a contract the Mets don’t need tied to a player they don’t want? Paddack has not been nearly as effective since a strong rookie breakout in 2019 (that included a verbal skirmish with Pete Alonso). The righty is a high-end strike thrower with a terrific changeup. But his fastball is straight, and he has to develop a feel for a third-pitch breaking ball. Pagan has been durable with strong strikeout numbers, but is homer susceptible having given up 45 the past four years — six more than any other reliever.
There are also optics. Part of the recent collective bargaining negotiations was not just management vs. players, but other owners vs. Cohen and his rampant spending. The recently signed CBA has a new, fourth luxury-tax level at $290 million dubbed the Steve Cohen Tax that was designed to try to restrain him. The Dodgers actually now project over that barrier after Friday’s exchange of AJ Pollock for Craig Kimbrel.
This trade would move the Mets’ projection clearly over $290 million and dabble with the symbolism of the first-ever $300 million payroll. Even Cohen has some pause about crossing that line so soon after the CBA deal.
With the Padres eating $34 million in one proposal, Hosmer would cost the Mets between $6.25 million toward their payroll for tax purposes not just this year, but the three seasons after as well. Paddack ($2.25 million) and Pagan ($2.3 million) would be about a salary wash in 2022 with Smith ($3.95 million).
The luxury tax record payroll has been the $297.5 million of the Dodgers in 2015.
Cohen has been trying to mimic those Dodgers, who also were still in the early years of a new ownership, by using his money to try to speed up relevance and contention while giving cover to upgrade a minor league feeding system.
That system is not ready to help with pitching depth, which was the greatest area of concern for the Mets even before deGrom’s loss and Scherzer’s setback. The post-lockout trade for Chris Bassitt looks even more valuable now as he units with Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker in the rotation.
Paddack would join Tylor Megill, David Peterson and — at some point during the year — Joey Lucchesi (Tommy John surgery) to provide rotation options. In addition, Bassitt, Carrasco, deGrom and Walker can all be free agents after the 2022 season. So that Paddack has control through at least 2024 also makes him more attractive. Because he was brought up to begin the 2019 season, Paddack has exactly three years of service. Thus, if the Mets sent him to the minors for three-plus weeks, they could delay his free agency until after the 2025 season. Pagan has two years of control left.
Paddack, 26, was 9-7 with a 3.33 ERA as a rookie in 2019. But he had a 4.73 ERA in 12 starts in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. It was 5.07 in 23 appearances (22 starts) last season for the disappointing Padres. Paddack, who had Tommy John surgery in the minors, was shut down last September with what the team said was a slight sprain of his right elbow. He came to this camp in a battle for the fifth rotation spot with recently signed Nick Martinez.
Both Paddack and Alonso were placed on the 2019 Opening Day rosters and had outstanding Aprils. Alonso was named NL Rookie of the Month. Paddack reacted by saying, “I’m coming for him” and noting the goal was Rookie of the Year (which Alonso won), not Rookie of the Month. The two faced each other on May 6. Alonso went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against Paddack, who punctuated the strikeouts emphatically.
Afterward, Alonso sprinkled a little gas on the matter by telling reporters, “If he was mad about (not winning NL Rookie of the Month), there’s five other months. … Also, he said something about winning the Rookie of the Year. That would be nice, but I’m trying to win a World Series.”
For the Mets, Hosmer, 32, would be a more expensive, more limited Smith—a lefty swinger who can move Alonso to designated hitter with some regularity. Unlike Smith, who also played corner outfield, Hosmer has played 25 career innings in the outfield, none since 2015. That was the year the Royals beat the Mets in the World Series in which the signature play was Hosmer’s dash home to tie Game 5 as first baseman Lucas Duda threw wildly to the plate.
Hosmer signed an eight-year, $144 million free agent deal with San Diego after the 2017 season and his performance has been ordinary as a Padre — perhaps, most surprisingly, scouts cite how his defense has taken a noticeable step backward. The team has been trying to trade him for at least a year to remove salary to pursue other areas of need — namely an outfield bat — and Hosmer has been upset about how public his availability had become.
It would be difficult for the Mets to swap Hosmer elsewhere. For his contract gives him full no-trade protection after he has been traded once. So you have to wonder if the Mets could simply release Hosmer and eat what they owe him the next four years.
That is a big price for two potentially useful, but not difference-making pitchers. It is why Cohen is deliberating whether he would be spending, or spending wisely.