Home News Steve Cohen on Carlos Correa, Mets free agency spending, payroll

Steve Cohen on Carlos Correa, Mets free agency spending, payroll

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Three days after the record deal was done, and star shortstop Carlos Correa was gone to the San Francisco Giants for a shortstop-record $350 million, you could still hear a tinge of disappointment in Steve Cohen’s voice.

“We’re trying,” the Mets owner told me by phone to start a half hour conversation about how he could operate with only winning in mind, and possibly spend so much money and accept such a large tax hit (and very likely overall franchise financial loss) without seemingly feeling any pain.

“We’re definitely trying.”

Of that there is absolutely no doubt. Perhaps no one has ever done more trying in baseball.

Cohen’s spent nearly a half a billion on free agents this winter, and he seems to regret not spending more — at least in this one case. He sought to push that figure by close to $300 million for Correa to what would have been a record $750 million-plus winter outlay when he made a surprise call to Correa’s agent Scott Boras — word is, he actually called a couple times — in a spirited attempt to sign the star player before he came off the board.

But alas, Boras told Cohen they were “already down the road” (or words to that effect) with someone else, meaning they were committed to finishing the contract with what turned out to be the Giants for what became another eye-popping contract. Once the Giants moved from slightly over $300 million to the winning figure — which accounted for Correa being slightly younger than Trea Turner, who’d gotten $300 million and 11 years from the Phillies — they had their man, the most expensive second choice in baseball history (as we all now, they tried hard first for superstar Aaron Judge).

“We thought maybe he might fall to us,” Cohen added about Correa with a just hint of lament.

Steve Cohen
Owner Steve Cohen and the Mets have spent plenty of money this offseason and sound far from done.
N.Y. Photo photo composite

Cohen clearly loves players, and he loved the idea of adding Correa to pair with superstar Francisco Lindor on the left side of the infield.

“He’s a great leader and a good guy. He could play third base. And he’s a great defender,” Cohen noted.

“We got there late,” he added about the 11th-hour effort first reported by The Athletic.

Cohen will recover, however, and he’ll be ready to strike again. He noted there would “always be another free agent.” He didn’t mention who that might be, and we can only guess. Shohei Ohtani? Juan Soto? From here on out, the very best must be presumed to be in play if they are free.

Cohen naturally didn’t know where the negotiations stood when he made the calls, he only knew what he read and surmised, which was that Correa’s incumbent team, the determined but mid-market Minnesota Twins, may not be able to afford him (they offered close to $285 million), that the Giants might be having trouble again luring the most marquee players to the Bay Area and that Correa’s camp had recently engaged the Yankees.

The Yankees, it turns out, didn’t think he’d fit financially or on the field. They lead their league in revenues but operate like almost every other team, with the bottom line at least in mind. But did that late talk indicate Correa wanted to be in New York? That seems to be a trend this winter when superstar Aaron Judge took less to remain a Yankee, and Mets star Brandon Nimmo may have, too.

But Correa is a different case. The personable star thrived in Minnesota, and perhaps the Giants fit better than Queens — where he would have shared the stage with all-time great pitchers Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, and also with slugger Pete Alonso and Lindor, who would have remained the shortstop. Though Correa says he wouldn’t mind moving to third base, he apparently won’t have to do that in San Francisco.

The Yankees never made much sense since they have three shortstops, including two kids they like, plus two well-paid veteran third basemen (and Josh Donaldson has proved untradeable), after all. But did the Mets? They look just as full at those spots, too, certainly at shortstop with Lindor and seemingly at third with veteran Eduardo Escobar and one of the game’s top 20 prospects, Brett Baty.

Twins
Carlos Correa
USA TODAY Sports

The Mets weren’t an obvious fit. But while Cohen is playing by the rules of the game, as he pointed out, he’s playing a totally different game than the rest. He wasn’t about to let a small thing like roster impediment stand in the way. So he made the call to go for it after they’d already signed Verlander, Edwin Diaz, Nimmo, Kodai Senga and David Robertson.

“No one likes to spend money. But this is the price,” Cohen said.

You don’t get to be the hedge fund king without being a competitive fellow. But he said he feels an obligation, too – to one particular constituency.

“I made a commitment to the fans,” he said. “If it means I have to spend money to fulfill that commitment, so be it.”

Cohen’s suggestion to the Correa camp that he could pay close to $300 million would have brought the Mets’ payroll to an unheard of $375 million (and counting) even if he’d gotten the long, 13-year deal he seemed to favor and the AAV (annual salary) was “only” about $23 million.

“But we would have gotten a good ballplayer, and it would have given us a great ball team,” Cohen said.

Cohen did have a limit, as his initial offer turned out to be $50 million less than Correa got. Who knows if he might have gone higher had Correa not been “down the road.” But Cohen suggest there was an endgame. He told me he was only going to do something “that made sense … and not get crazy.”

Crazy? Not at all. But he’s obviously playing a different way than the field. And that’s exactly why some at MLB and a small coterie of other owners who originally opposed his ownership — he did easily garner the necessary 75 percent approval to win ownership approval, but a few owners were adamantly opposed — feared when he bought the Mets for $2.4 billion.

Almost every team, with the possible exception of the mid-market Padres, runs baseball like a business, with concern about profit and loss (while many other teams may show a loss, only the Marlins are convincing as a perennial money loser). The other owners are rich but not that rich. They feared he’d be playing a different game, envisioning him buying anything and everything to tilt the competitive balance, and even worse for them, run up player costs for everyone.

Cohen isn’t thinking about the money, the profit, or in his case obvious loss. Some are estimating Cohen’s likely loss to be north of $100 million, but Cohen would only tell me, “It’s bigger than a bread box.” (He’s kept his sense of humor.)

This was the fear of the other owners: Not that a very rich man — Forbes estimates Cohen to be worth $17 billion, though those figures occasionally prove to be very rough — would spend some of his fortune, but that he had so much it wouldn’t faze him to the point he would never stop. We’re not there yet — he did show a threshold on Correa; he didn’t offer $400 million after all — but he’s operating like no one before him. He talks about the red ink like it’s almost nothing.

“It’s OK,” he said about losses. “It’s not the end of the world.”

Mets
The Mets signed Brandon Nimmo to an 8-year, $162 million contract.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Whatever, it’s barely a consideration. Cohen cares foremost about the team — and its fans.

“My team is good. But it isn’t that much better than last year,” he said. “If you want a team that’s good, this is what it costs. What are you going to do?”

The Mets this past season became one of two teams to approach a $300 million payroll, and though the Dodgers are cutting back, perhaps in an attempt to get back under the top-tier tax thresholds, Cohen’s player expenditures continue to skyrocket. That’s partly because he said he needs to bridge the gap while the farm system catches up, but it’s mostly because he cares almost only about winning. The payroll is at about $350 million now, the total tax is past $70 million, and he tells me they are still working.

These are numbers baseball has never seen before, numbers baseball’s home office was hoping to avoid when they negotiated a fourth-tier tax that’s now commonly referred to as “the Steve Cohen tax.”

“The tax was 70 cents. Now 90 cents,” Cohen said matter-of-factly, almost as if we were talking about actual pennies. What he means is that it’s now 90 cents on the dollar. So if he were to sign Correa for, say, $23 million a year, his tax bill would rise by 90 percent (not 90 cents!), or another $20 million.

“It’s only another 20 cents,” Cohen said. “It wasn’t like all or nothing. You have to decide. You either pay it or you don’t.”

So far he’s paying. Most of us can’t fathom being blasé about adding $20 million like it’s nothing.

“I’ve been dealing with big numbers for so long these numbers don’t scare me at all,” he said. “It’s not like I’m not respectful about what these other teams have to deal with.”

He’s doing nothing wrong, and only exactly what many suspected he would do. Other owners — some of whom seem like relative paupers — feared he’d become the king of free agency, too. One MLB higher-up pointed out that, with even the reported $17 billion net worth, Cohen is 10 times wealthier than many owners and 20 times wealthier than a few — who might have just $1 billion or $2 billion, with much tied up in the team.

Since the spending, there haven’t been complaints from other owners to this point (at least Cohen hasn’t heard it, and neither have I), and the Mets’ latest round of his contracts were quite reasonable compared to some others. You could point to the eye-popping, marketing-setting Max Scherzer $43.33 million salary a year ago, which caused him to repeat that figure for Verlander, but that established the Mets as a real player on the scene. Fairly, the rest of his deals seem in line or better with what’s going on out there.

10/9/22 - MLB Mets owner Steve Cohen reacts in the owners suite during the first inning.
Steve Cohen
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Cohen also didn’t expect these prices at winter’s start. But neither did anyone else guess this.

“I didn’t know what was about to transpire,” Cohen said. “They set up the CBA with certain assumptions. And guess what? The prices went up.”

His bills skyrocketed, not that it’s worrying him. In case anyone’s worried, Cohen, the hedge fund king, added, “I’m making money. I have this other job that generates a good living. It’s not like it’s a zero-sum game.”

MLB people aren’t worried about the Mets’ franchise. As they see it (and there’s no other way to see it), he is merely dipping into his personal fortune. As one MLB honcho put it to me, the Mets could lose $200 million a year for 10 years, and it wouldn’t put much of a dent in Cohen’s bank account. From the personal experience of talking to him, I can tell you the steep personal losses wouldn’t faze him one bit.

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