Steve Cohen is a fascinating individual and he’s breaking baseball. When he bought the New York Mets, he made it very clear that he was willing to spend money to win games. The team proceeded to trade for Francisco Lindor and sign him to a 10-year $341 million extension. Cohen was not messing around. Then in the 2022 offseason, the Mets went out and signed a plethora of free agents. This included outfielder Starling Marte, infielder Eduardo Escobar and starting pitcher Max Scherzer to name a few. Cohen and the Mets were going all out trying to prove that if you spend money, you can win games. It makes sense. The more money you pay, the better players you can get. The better players you can get, the better your team is. In theory a better team means more wins and therefore championships. This is not a new concept, however Cohen’s moves since he took over have just put it into the spotlight. We can look to see whether or not his plan actually works.
If we look at the payrolls overall last year, we can see how more money does work to some extent. In 2022, the top ten teams in payroll were the Los Angeles Angels, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers. Out of those ten teams, seven of them made the playoffs. The Angels, White Sox and Red Sox did not make the playoffs. These teams not only missed the playoffs but were not great. The White Sox finished at exactly .500, while the Angels and Red Sox finished below .500. Every single team in the National League (NL) that was top ten in payroll made the playoffs. If we look at the Mets specifically, we can see that they had the second highest payroll in Major League Baseball (MLB) and also tied for the third most wins in the regular season with 101. There you can see how money may translate into wins. However, where it matters most is the playoffs. The Mets lost in the Wild Card round of the playoffs to the Padres and all the sudden those 101 wins meant nothing. So, did Cohen’s plan work? Technically yes, considering the team performed significantly better than the season before, however the ultimate goal is to win the World Series and the Mets failed to accomplish that.
Even though the Mets failed to win the World Series with a high payroll, the World Series still consisted of two teams with top ten highest payrolls in the league. The matchup was between the Phillies and Astros, who had the fourth and the eighth highest payrolls respectively. So maybe money does buy World Series wins—just not for the Mets. We can look back further to see if this is the case. In 2021, the World Series matchup was between the Astros and the Braves. The Astros had the fifth highest payroll and the Braves had the 10th. 2020 was the shortened year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the season was more erratic than normal. In the end, the World Series was between the Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Dodgers had the highest payroll in baseball, similar to most years, while the Rays had the third lowest. Here is the first example of money not necessarily buying wins. The Rays have been successful for the past couple years with a limited payroll. They have been heavily reliant on analytics and player development such that they can keep their payroll very low while maintaining a strong team. They have not won the World Series, but they have been close. In 2019, the World Series was between the Washington Nationals and the Astros. Both teams had top-five payrolls that year. 2018 was another year where the team that won the world series had the highest payroll. This time it was the Red Sox, and they defeated the Dodgers who had the third-highest payroll that year. So, with all this in mind, what can we learn? Firstly, the Astros have been good for a long time and money may play a role in that. They have consistently been in the top 10 for highest payroll and have made the World Series three times out of the last five seasons. Secondly, every single World Series winner over the past five seasons has had a top ten highest payroll. Therefore, to some extent more money can lead to championships. Thirdly, the Rays have consistently proven that money isn’t everything. Although the Rays have not won the World Series, they have gotten close. They regularly have made the playoffs over the past couple years with one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball. The Cleveland Guardians are another team that have been solid over the past couple years without breaking the bank.
With all this in mind, what can we really conclude? I think that it’s evident that money does get you somewhere most of the time. However, there is so much variation in baseball that it is hard to consistently say that paying for the best players is always going to get you a championship. You need good player development and analytics to get the most out of these players. Do I think that it is possible to win the World Series with a low payroll? Yes, I saw the Rays nearly do it a few years ago. There are a lot of good baseball players, but sometimes they just don’t have the right coaching. Even though I think it is possible to win the World Series in this way, I don’t think it is likely. Sometimes certain players are just better than others. You can have all the analytics in the world, but I am definitely taking the best pitcher in baseball, Jacob deGrom, over the worst pitcher in baseball, Patrick Corbin. Paying for the best players is a lot easier.
I am going to end this by going back to the Mets. After losing in the Wild Card round of the 2022 season, Cohen and the Mets went back to shelling out money. They made closer Edwin Diaz the highest paid reliever in baseball. To replace deGrom, they signed Justin Verlander to a two-year $86.6 million deal. They signed one of the best players from Japan Kodai Senga to a five-year $75 million deal. There were more deals, but it was evident that Cohen was done losing. He wanted a World Series. Then the Mets broke baseball by announcing a 12-year $315 million deal for All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa. This came after the San Francisco Giants deal with Correa fell through due to medical concerns. The Mets shot past the luxury tax threshold and had by far the highest payroll in all of baseball. It was unbelievable. This was all short lived as the Mets also had medical concerns regarding Correa and ultimately, he went back to the Minnesota Twins on a completely different deal. But we can put that aside because Cohen showed his hand. He was willing to pay anything to win. Do I think the Mets are definitely going to win the World Series now? Absolutely not, because baseball is super complicated. I am interested to see though if Cohen’s plan works, what do other teams do? Also, if his plan doesn’t work, does Cohen spend even more money?