Mets’ 2024 free agent approach comes with a 2025 escape plan

The trade deadline is a seminal moment in a season, in this case the 2023 campaign. So naturally we need to talk about the 2024 Mets.

It is not just that this is the time of year when also-rans become sellers — of players to contenders and of the future to the fan base.

But the Mets are no standard seller. Because the 2023 version was no standard team. Steve Cohen authorized by far the largest payroll ever, one that even with the recent trades still will cost him about $490 million, with the luxury-tax bill included.

Now the Mets’ owner has approved a massive sell-off to surrender in 2023. Thus, the organization’s 2024 intentions became vital to first Max Scherzer then Justin Verlander. What Scherzer learned about why the Mets were waving the white flag contributed to him waiving his no-trade clause. Verlander sounded like he was now open to doing the same.

So what are the Mets up to in 2024? Billy Eppler provided hints Sunday when the Scherzer deal became official. Before taking a question, he said, “I do want to be clear that it’s not a rebuild, it’s not a fire sale, it’s not a liquidation. This is just a repurposing of [Cohen’s] investment in the club, kind of shifting that investment from the team into the organization.”

Mets owner Steve Cohen speaks to GM Billy Eppler, left, at Spring Training
GM Billy Eppler and owner Steve Cohen won’t shy away from spending big, but will do so very different in 2024.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

Translation: If you asked Cohen in his team’s current state whether he would rather pay Scherzer $59 million-ish through next year or sign Luisangel Acuna for $32 million as a free agent, he not only would pick the latter, he did so by paying down Scherzer for the Rangers to land Acuna. Cohen prioritized Acuna’s future potential over Scherzer’s next year and a half.

Verlander also is owed roughly $59 million through next season, plus another $35 million in 2025 if he throws 140 innings in 2024 and ends the year healthy. His cost is greater and there are underlying stats that concern suitors, including a strikeout percentage that was 35.4 percent in 2019 (second among qualifiers before he missed most of 2020-21 after Tommy John surgery) and 27.8 percent last year (10th) and 21 percent this season (56th among those who have thrown at least 90 innings).

At the right price, though, a team will buy Verlander’s pedigree, competitiveness, pitching IQ and ability to still pitch well despite being 40 and producing fewer whiffs. Can the Mets get the kind of prospect that would make Cohen dine on a big portion of salary again?

Signing Scherzer/Verlander was to try to win short term. Trading Scherzer and perhaps Verlander is an attempt to erect an elite farm system long term. They are both forms of free agency for Cohen, with different motivations.

Justin Verlander #35 of the New York Mets throws a pitch in the sixth inning
Justin Verlander’s Mets status for 2024 will be a hot topic for Tuesday.
Gordon Donovan/New York Post

That still does not fully reveal 2024 plans. But Eppler also said, “I don’t think we’ll be walking into 2024 with the same preseason odds that we did in 2022 and 2023. Free agency is not the market we want to rely on to build a championship team. It’s the market we want to use to enhance the team that we have. … We’re not there yet. That’s going to take a little time. We’re still going to have to invest through free agency.”

Again I will try to translate: The Mets will attempt to use Cohen’s largesse to win on one- and two-year free-agent deals designed to impact 2024. If the losing persists, those signings become part of another sale next July for more prospects with an eye on a more substantive push to win in 2025 with a more fully ripened farm system.

There is a proviso: I believe Cohen will let Shohei Ohtani’s camp know he is willing to overwhelm the field to sign the free agent because this specific player has so many on- and off-field benefits, including potentially those that extend to helping Cohen’s hedge fund business in Japan. The working belief is that Ohtani will have a preference to stay on the West Coast or, at minimum, do spring training in Arizona, and even Cohen’s bankroll cannot alter geography.

But with or without Ohtani, I still believe that giving up Scherzer’s 2024 and perhaps Verlander’s (and maybe others by Tuesday’s 6 p.m. deadline) plus Eppler’s words about having lower postseason odds provides a signpost about next year.

I can’t imagine Cohen punting on a season. I would suspect the Mets will still have MLB’s largest payroll in 2024, but it will be allocated differently. For example — and this is just speculation — say they need two starters, two relievers, a left fielder and a DH.

They could say to a player likely to get a one-year contract such as Justin Turner: What are you getting offered, we will give you $2 million more (the Cohen advantage). Boom, that is your DH. Or J.D. Martinez or Joc Pederson. The same for left field, with, say, Adam Duvall, Whit Merrifield or Hunter Renfroe. For two relievers try to bring back David Robertson to work in front of Edwin Diaz for real this time plus a lefty such as Matt Moore or Will Smith. For a starter, how about James Paxton and Hyun-jin Ryu. Or maybe tell the Red Sox, you will take Chris Sale’s $27.5 million due in 2024 as long as they attach a prospect to him.

Mix those types of players with what the Mets have and that team could at least contend for the wild card with decent health. If not, that group of players would have value at next July’s deadline to keep addressing farm upgrades.

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