Dear Cousin Steven,
Mazel tov on your purchase of the New York Mets. For Met fans, it’s only fair that a hedge fund billionaire has rescued our team from Fred Wilpon, the schlepper whose investments with Bernie Madoff forced a decade of austerity. We believe you want what we all want: a consistent winner worthy of Met fans, with an ethos worthy of New York.
Maybe Aunt Sylvia never told you about me. Like you, I grew up rooting for the Mets, and we were both 13 when they won their first championship in 1969. (Sorry you weren’t invited to my bar mitzvah.) Unlike you, I didn’t make billions managing money. Instead, after attending the same high school as Omar Minaya, I began covering baseball in the 1980s. Over the decades, I’ve worked with and picked the brains of some of the game’s top players, managers, executives and statistical analysts.
Since you’re a multi-billionaire, everybody expects you to spend big on free agents to improve the team. History shows, trying to build a championship is rarely a winning strategy.
Players become free agents after completing at least six years in the major leagues. At that stage of their careers, usually pushing 30, most free agents are unlikely to match or exceed their pre-free agency peak productivity. We’ve seen notable exceptions in New York, including Dave Winfield, Carlos Beltran and (with help from performance enhancing drugs) Alex Rodriquez, the latter two reaching free agency before age 28.
With any first time free agent, you’re paying for their top performance, and you’re unlikely to see it repeated. You’re more likely to receive diminishing returns, particularly over the course of a long term contract.
Albert Pujols was the best hitter in baseball when signed his 10 year free agent contract with the Angels, a deal that he began at age 32 in 2012. Pujols has steadily ascended the all-time leader lists, passing Willie Mays in home runs and A-Rod in RBIs in 2020. But Pujols has been a below average hitter for the past four seasons at cost of $110 million – his paycheck and pedigree blocking the Angels from replacing him with someone better – and has one more year left at $30 million. The Angels have reached the postseason just once during Pujols’ tenure.
The other history making hitter of that generation, Miguel Cabrera, signed an eight year, $240 million contract after his age 32 season in 2015 and has logged only one outstanding season since. The Detroit Tigers still owe Cabrera $94 million for the next three seasons.
This off-season’s premier free agent, catcher JT Realmuto, will almost certainly get a long term contract. But he turns 30 in March and plays the most demanding position in baseball. Mets Hall of Famer catchers Gary Carter and Mike Piazza had their last outstanding seasons at age 32 and 33 respectively. Any commitment to Realmuto beyond three seasons carries high risk, including potentially blocking a more able replacement, such as Mets prospect Francisco Alvarez, who turns 19 on November 19.
Realmuto happens to be the best catcher in baseball right now, and catcher is a key need for the Mets. But too often free agents don’t fit your team’s top need or aren’t good enough to make a difference.
Many of baseball’s best players don’t become free agents in their primes because teams give them long term contracts. Last year, the Mets signed Jacob deGrom to a contract that extends through his presumed prime years before he could become a free agent. The Angels did the same with centerfielder Mike Trout, the Rockies did it with third baseman Nolan Arenado, the Dodgers did it with rightfielder Mookie Betts after the Red Sox failed to sign Betts and traded him to Los Angeles.
Too often, teams get seduced by availability and overpay for a good, but not great, free agent that won’t make a significant difference. Houston Astros centerfielder George Springer, a free agent this winter, is a good hitter – very good in the postseason – and middling fielder at a key defensive position, and he turned 31 in September. As a free agent, Springer will get a top tier contract for mid-range skills likely to deteriorate over the term of his deal.
The lure of availability also can induce teams to cast free agents in unsuitable roles. The Boston Red Sox pursued star infielder Hanley Ramirez to play a different position, leftfield, particularly challenging in quirky Fenway Park with its 37 foot high wall. The Red Sox committed $88 million over four years to an experiment that, in year one, yielded Ramirez’s career worst offensive season along with predictably shaky defense. Ramirez didn’t play outfield during the rest of his Boston tenure and was released in June of his fourth contract year.
Free agency works best when you identify special situations where the market improperly evaluates a player. As a 29 year old free agent after the 2018 season with an all-star resume as a Colorado Rockie, second baseman DJ LeMahieu faced doubts about replicating his sky high performance beyond the thin air of Denver. Signed at a relative discount, LeMahieu defied skeptics with two career best batting seasons for the Yankees. Note, it wasn’t the discount that made the signing a success, it was LeMahieu’s outstanding performance. To paraphrase renowned baseball fan Warren Buffett, a great player at a good price is better than a good player at a great price.
With Covid-19 reducing 2020 revenue by forcing a truncated schedule without spectators and no certainty about fans returning to stadiums in 2021, this off-season promises many special situations. Teams are not offering contracts to many players with two-plus years of major league service, releasing them to avoid the arbitration process that usually raises salaries regardless of performance. Many teams are reducing budgets, jettisoning potentially costly players and shunning premium free agents.
More available players and limited competition mean unprecedented temptation to flex your checkbook muscle. But under any free agent market conditions, the same guidelines apply: avoid buying unproductive years; focus on need, not availability; and seek special situations.
Consider a team we both know well, the 1986 Mets. The most important free agent contributor to that team was… Rafael Santana, a footnote to its success. Dwight Gooden, Daryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman were homegrown. Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Bob Ojeda, Jesse Orosco, Ray Knight, Tim Teufel and Howard Johnson were obtained in trades.
With trades, you’re not restricted to the sliver of often flawed talent available in free agency. Rather than trying to determine the best free agent third baseman, your baseball operations executives should determine the best third baseman, period, and work to acquire him.
As with free agency, trades require rigorous data analysis to identify needs, finding the right fits and recognizing special situations, such as distressed assets. Aunt Sylvia says you already know something about data analysis and trading.
Kol hakovod, and Let’s Go Mets!
Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is editor at large for Inside Asian Gaming, a contributor to Forbes, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.