Olney: Why the New York Mets believe they’re just fine without Carlos Correa

Sports

What Carlos Correa would have added to the Mets, an NL East evaluator said the other day as he mused over what Might Have Been, was a great competitive arrogance. Correa is an extremely self-assured performer with 79 postseason games of experience, operating with an apparent assumption that he will find a way to succeed.

“A F— You Guy,” the evaluator said. “A perfect New York guy. [Max] Scherzer is that guy in the rotation, but there is a need for a F— You Guy in the [Mets] lineup.”

But the Mets have been very comfortable in moving on from the collapsed negotiations with Correa, an episode that revealed more about the operating style of owner Steve Cohen, and about organizational confidence that the 2023 team might be even better than the club that won 101 games last season. The Mets believe they have better roster depth and more operational flexibility.

“Would it have been nice to have [Correa]? Yes,” one Mets employee said. “But we’ll be fine without him.”

Of course, they’ll need to be more than fine in the NL East, given the presence of the relatively young and dynamic Atlanta Braves, who have won the division in each of the past five seasons; and the Philadelphia Phillies, who powered their way to the World Series last year. Even the Marlins, steeped in starting pitching, could contend for a playoff spot.

All that is why Cohen, just a few weeks ago, famously told the New York Post the Correa signing “puts us over the top.” It was Cohen who most seriously engaged in the talks with Correa. In the hours after Correa’s deal with the Giants melted over concerns about the player’s perceived medical issues, Cohen worked out a tentative $315 million agreement with Correa’s agent, Scott Boras, while vacationing in Hawaii.

The negotiation and Cohen’s immediate comments to a reporter before the deal was completed reinforced the perception in some corners of the industry that Cohen is a complete wild card, willing to spend way beyond the guardrails established by other owners.

But the morning after news of that deal broke, a Mets staffer privately predicted that the team could follow the path of the Giants. “If there’s a problem, [Cohen] is going to listen to his GM,” said the staffer, referring to Billy Eppler. “He’s not crazy. If the medical information is bad, he’s not going to do the deal just to save face [over negotiations].”

Within the Mets’ baseball operations, there is an understanding that it’s possible Cohen, as owner, could operate and explore possible deals on a plane above the front office. But there is also a belief that he will listen and absorb information. This distinguishes him from some other big-spending owners, like the Angels’ Arte Moreno, who jumped for Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton on his own.

It’s a big reason the Mets go into their second season operating under Eppler and manager Buck Showalter with much more certainty than a year ago, when their first spring training together was truncated by the labor stoppage. Even without the superstar shortstop, this roster has perhaps more talent overall, and, as always, the continued potential attached to the spending power of Cohen, the richest owner in baseball.

And the internal optimism isn’t due only to the roster of players. Showalter has raved to others in the organization about the new coaching staff, suggesting it could be one of the best he’s had in his 22 years of managing, partly because the Mets’ front office played defense for Showalter this winter.

The Detroit Tigers pursued Jeremy Barnes, the Mets’ No. 2 hitting coach, to be their lead hitting coach. The Mets, needing to match the promotion that the Tigers dangled, scrambled to find a way to keep him. Glen Sherlock, who was the Mets’ bench coach, agreed to shift to catching instructor — Sherlock got an extension to make this happen — with No. 1 hitting coach Eric Chavez climbing into Sherlock’s spot at bench coach. Through this portal, the Mets then promoted Barnes to No. 1 hitting coach.

This kind of strategic maneuvering has defined the Mets’ offseason behind the scenes, even as Cohen’s impetuousness grabbed the headlines. Take the following carefully constructed position groups:

  • Outfield. As the offseason began, the Mets had talked internally about pursuing Trea Turner to be their center fielder, in the event that Brandon Nimmo landed elsewhere in free agency. But after Turner chose his preferred destination, the Phillies for $300 million (turning down more money elsewhere), the Mets re-signed Nimmo to an eight-year, $162 million deal. Last week, the Mets agreed to terms with Tommy Pham on a one-year, $6 million deal to be the fourth outfielder behind Nimmo, Starling Marte and Mark Canha, and perhaps share a DH platoon with the left-handed-hitting Daniel Vogelbach.

  • Starting rotation. They effectively replaced Jacob deGrom with future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander for a two-year, $86.7 million deal, and then added more starting pitching. The Mets signed Jose Quintana, who is coming off a strong season in which he posted a 2.93 ERA in 32 starts, and Kodai Senga, who formerly starred in Japan. Other organizations are concerned about Senga’s injury history and felt the Mets paid too much in investing a five-year, $75 million deal in the right-hander, but he’ll go into this year penciled into the middle of the Mets’ rotation. The Mets also have David Peterson and Tylor Megill as rotation options, and are signaling to other teams that they’d be comfortable opening this season with Carlos Carrasco in the starting group, with his $14 million salary. With the presence of Scherzer and Verlander, both in their late 30s, it’s possible the coaching staff might weigh the pros and cons of moving to a six-man rotation or skipping any starter who could use an in-season vacation. But there’s also a perception among other teams that Carrasco could be dealt.

  • Bullpen. Last year, the Mets’ bullpen mostly operated without left-handed relievers, and this greatly constricted Showalter as he managed within a division that includes left-handed mashers Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber and Matt Olson. According to numbers dug out by Sarah Langs, lefties accounted for only 18% of the plate appearances handled by Mets relievers, the seventh lowest in MLB. This winter, the Mets traded for Brooks Raley, a left-hander who held left-handed hitters to a .482 OPS last season, from the Tampa Bay Rays. They also signed David Robertson, a right-hander who historically has been highly effective against left-handed hitters; last year, lefties hit .168 against him.

  • Catching. The Mets’ catchers had a rough year offensively in ’22, ranking 22nd among 30 teams in wRC+ and 29th in home runs (29), so Eppler jettisoned James McCann to the Orioles, swallowing $19 million of the $24 million remaining on his contract, and signed Omar Narvaez, a left-handed hitter who could share a platoon with Tomas Nido; in their internal evaluations of Narvaez, the Mets’ analysts made the case that Narvaez could be among the big leaguers who markedly benefit from the restrictions against defensive shifts. This might also mean that catcher Francisco Alvarez, the 21-year-old masher who is one of baseball’s best prospects, could open the year in the minors to continue with the development of his defense, which is an organizational priority for Alvarez this year. Staffers want him to play regularly, whether he is in Class AAA or the majors. If Narvaez and/or Nido gets hurt and there is playing time available in the big leagues, sources say, then the Mets would feel comfortable promoting Alvarez to the big leagues.

The infield plan, of course, went through a few more twists and turns. It didn’t include Correa, until it did, and then it didn’t again. In the end, the proposal that the Mets offered the shortstop after his physical would’ve guaranteed half of their original proposal, $157.5 million.

Boras told USA Today recently that the Mets gleaned their information from the same doctor who offered a recommendation to the Giants, and based their decision on that one prognosis. “I don’t understand the Mets,” Boras said. “I gave them all of the information.”

According to management sources, however, the Mets consulted with a number of doctors before reducing their offer to Correa. There is concern that the condition in Correa’s ankle will manifest in the years ahead, affecting his movements in the field, his discomfort and his availability.

In the end, the Twins signed Correa to a $200 million guaranteed deal, with another $70 million possible at the Twins’ discretion. It was less than the Mets had offered, but there is no indication that Correa or the players’ association will pursue a grievance based on Cohen’s public acknowledgment of the $315 million agreement — a practice that MLB warns team execs about constantly. Before the deal with Minnesota went final, Boras reached out to Cohen with a courtesy heads-up that Correa was negotiating with another team. “We have a clear and understanding relationship,” Boras wrote in a text.

The Mets released this statement after Correa landed with the Twins: “We were unable to reach an agreement. We wish Carlos all the best.”

One silver lining, to some Mets staffers: Throughout the Correa talks, the team was in communication with the representative for third baseman Eduardo Escobar; if Correa had landed in New York at third base, Escobar might well have been traded.

But now it appears the Mets will retain Escobar, who finished last season strongly, winning the NL Player of the Month for September, posting a .982 OPS in his last 30 games. “And you’re not going to find a better clubhouse guy,” one staffer said. “I would’ve hated to see him leave our clubhouse.”

Sure, some Mets staffers are well aware that if Correa plays well this year, the team’s decision to step away from a deal with a 28-year-old two-time All-Star with 18 career postseason homers could be heavily scrutinized. But there is also a deep confidence within the front office that the franchise is steadily moving in the right direction.

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