Exclusive Interview: Mets Beat Writer Tim Britton Previews Offseason

The New York Mets have new ownership coming in with an interesting offseason ahead of them. The Athletic‘s Tim Britton sat down with Prime Time Sports Talk and previewed what Mets fans should expect.

You can listen to the audio version here. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Click here to follow Tim Britton on Twitter and here to read his content.

Question: Let’s start with what everybody wants to know. Steve Cohen comes in with a net worth of over $14 billion and Mets fans believe that he is just going to spend it all this winter. Out of the big three (Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, and George Springer), who do you believe is Cohen’s top priority to sign?

Answer: I don’t think Steve Cohen is going to spend everything he has just this winter. He is in it for the long haul. I know a lot of people have mentioned this but it’s kind of trying to build what the Dodgers have in New York now, doing what that ownership did over the last eight or nine years in Los Angeles. Out of those big three, I think you’d probably start with Realmuto just because of the gap between him and the next best at his position. That’s not even the gap between him and the next best at his position that’s available, that’s just the next position overall is larger than it is with the other guys. I think there’s just nowhere else you can get a catcher of that quality. The Mets, maybe, decide the price isn’t worth it. Maybe Realmuto doesn’t want to play for them specifically or the Phillies prioritize him in a different way. If he doesn’t end up there [in New York], there are reasonable Plan Bs. It’s just a bigger drop-off between guys like James McCann and beneath Realmuto than there are in the other spots.

Q: I think it would be a success for them to sign one of the big three, but what do you believe the chances are that they [the Mets] come away with two out of the three?

A: I probably wouldn’t give them better than 50-50 odds on any individual player there. I would be surprised if they got two out of the three, and in that case, it would probably be Realmuto and Bauer. In my mind, I can’t imagine them going after Bauer and Springer, especially with the state of their starting rotation. I’d probably say it’s five percent or lower they sign both of those guys. I think they’ll probably go for one big splash in free agency and then backfill with some other interesting pieces. If they sign Realmuto to play catcher, it might be bringing back Marcus Stroman in the rotation. It might be trying to get someone like Charlie Morton in the rotation. People like that who are still very good but not quite Cy Young frontrunners the way Trevor Bauer is at the moment.

Q: Now, moving to the smaller moves that the casual fan may not pay a whole lot of attention to. The bullpen could use some help and, due to losses in revenue, we have seen small-market teams not choosing to pick up club options. Therefore, there are relievers like Brad Hand on the market when they wouldn’t be in a regular year. Should Cohen make it a priority to strengthen the bullpen in the early stages of free agency?

A: I don’t know that it would be a priority at the early stages of free agency just in particular because of the way that reliever market is going to work because there are going to be so many options there and you’re going to have even more when we get to Dec. 2 and the non-tender deadline. We’re going to see even more names thrown out there. We’re expecting a lot of relievers to be non-tendered but it might be even more than we thought in the same sense, you know, we expected some club options to be declined. No one expected Brad Hand to pass through waivers the way he did. I think there are some intriguing names already out there, Hand among them. I don’t know if he’d want to sign in New York if the Mets still felt Edwin Diaz could be their closer. I look at a guy like Trevor May from Minnesota who’s got some experience with [Mets pitching coach] Jeremy Hefner and has shown very good peripheral stats the last couple of years as he has officially shifted to the bullpen full time. I think that’s the kind of level of splash they’re looking for in the bullpen, not necessarily a ninth-inning guy, but a guy you feel pretty good about in the seventh and eighth inning and allows you to build that bridge to Edwin Diaz more consistently than they were able to for stretches of this season.

Q: I look at a guy like Trevor Rosenthal–the closer in San Diego–he might not be a high profile name but he’s still someone that would be willing to take any role that’s given to him as long as they win. 

A: Yeah, it’s remarkable the bounce-back season he was able to have. You go back to the very start of the 2019 season and how rough it went for him in Washington. For him to come back first in Kansas City and then in San Diego and deliver that kind of season he did. It was a shorter season, only 60 games, and as a reliever that means it’s 20 to 25 good innings but he was pitching well into the postseason and it’s another one of those guys who should cash in a little bit more this winter than you would’ve expected him to last winter which is not the case for so many people in this market.

Q: The offseason isn’t all just about free agent signings. It wouldn’t seem fair for Luis Rojas to be let go after guiding the team through a pandemic, but it’s new ownership. Do you believe that Rojas is safe?

A: I wouldn’t say that he is safe just yet. I would be surprised if he didn’t return as manager. I think at this point, with Sandy Alderson in line to come back as the team president, Rojas is a guy who has some familiarity with Alderson from Alderson’s previous tenure there. Rojas was a minor league manager throughout those eight seasons with the Mets. He knows that Alderson likes him to a point at least that he’s been in the organization at the same time as him and when you look at what Luis Rojas did last year, sure, the on-field results were not what you wanted. The Mets were a team that thought they could make a five-team playoff field and they didn’t make an eight-team playoff field. But when you break it down into the individual roles of the manager, I think there are some strengths you saw from Luis Rojas in terms of what he was able to build with the players and connect with them in terms of having credibility in the clubhouse, which is a really hard thing for a manager to get. People will nitpick all of these in-game moves for a manager but I think the most important thing for a manager that you can have is buy-in from your players. So far as I can tell, as it’s harder this year than most years to tell because we, as reporters, are not in the clubhouse, it seemed like Rojas had that especially from players he was familiar with from managing them in the minor leagues when they were younger, so I think he’s got that. We saw a pretty depth handling of the media, which again it was a different year for that kind of thing, but he was a guy who was able to criticize his team and to be blunt in those criticisms without really throwing any individual players under the bus. I think that’s a really fine line to walk and it’s something different managers struggle with. We’ve certainly seen certain managers in New York and in other big markets struggle with it and I think he did that pretty well last year and just his willingness to have a defensive replacement for a veteran like Robinson Cano; to move established pieces down in his batting order the way he did with Wilson Ramos and even Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil. Those are difficult things for a manager to do, they’re really hard for a first-year manager to do. He was able to do them without really any hubbub and so that bodes well for him moving forward.

Q: Moving to the trade market, there are two main players that Mets fans bring up that they want to acquire: Nolan Arenado and Francisco Lindor. Arenado’s production has declined and there’s almost no chance now that he opts out of the $164 million remaining after the opt-out clause. So do you see the Mets calling Jeff Bridich and the Rockies about Arenado this winter?

A: I think Arenado is a tougher one to get done than Lindor because of the opt-out, as you mentioned. Like you said, because of what happened in 2020 to Arenado’s offensive numbers, it’s harder to imagine him opting out after 2021 and going out into the free agency market when you have so much left on that deal, but it’s still a possibility. A trade there would have to be along the lines of the one the Yankees made with Miami in Giancarlo Stanton where [the Mets] probably want some money back from Colorado, but money back only if and when Arenado opted into the final five years of the contract. That just becomes really complicated to do. It’s not impossible to negotiate a deal that way as the Yankees and the Marlins showed, although the opt-out clause in Stanton’s deal was further down the road at that point. But, it does make it more complicated and you’ve got a team in Colorado that doesn’t seem to want to give up totally on where they are right now. They haven’t had a strong win-now versus rebuild direction in the last couple of years after the way the last two years have gone for them, and Arenado’s down season in 2020 makes it harder to gauge exactly where he is as a player as he moves into his 30’s. Lindor also had a down offensive season in 2020 but he’s still 26 years old and he’s still in his prime so that’s not a sign of a decline to come, that’s just one little blimp over 60 games. I’m not sure you feel quite the same way about that with Arenado.

Q: Lindor has one year left on his deal and Cleveland’s owner, Paul Dolan, has already said they probably aren’t bringing him back in free agency. The Indians would likely expect a deal that would net a return of something like Brandon Nimmo, Amed Rosario, and a prospect. Do you think the Mets would be willing to execute a Lindor trade in the way the Dodgers did with Betts?

A: I think it’s certainly something they’ll kick the tires on. It’s a little different than the Betts deal because, with Betts and the Red Sox, it was so motivated by saving money. It’s certainly a part of the conversation for Cleveland but Cleveland is less concerned with saving money in 2021 than it is in just getting something back before he’s a free agent. The Red Sox really wanted to get under the Competitive Balance Tax last year, so moving Betts and attaching David Price to that deal limited the number of teams they could negotiate with and limited what they were able to get back in return. I think the market for Lindor will be a little bit more competitive. Still, it will be limited in the sense that you’ve got so many good shortstops who will be free agents next year. You’ve got a few pretty good shortstops who are free agents this year so maybe the market at that position, in particular, isn’t that strong but I do think the Mets will be considering when they’re writing down the different ways to build their team, that’s one of them. If someone like Nimmo has to be a part of the deal, as the Indians have been looking for outfield offense help for years, well does it make sense then to bring in Lindor? Can you replace Nimmo’s production in the lineup? How do the pieces fit then in your lineup versus how they would otherwise, and then also do you think you can sign him long-term? The Mets in the past have brought in a guy like Mike Piazza without having a long-term deal, and were able to win him over and sign him. With Johan Santana, they had a negotiating period for the extension right when they traded for him. My understanding is if they trade for Lindor, they’re not going to get that window to negotiate with him. They’re going to have to win him over, over time so there would be a risk in that as well, which is the same that the Dodgers took with Mookie Betts.

Q: Moving back to Steve Cohen, people talk about how he’s coming in ready to win, but I think it’s also important to look at the first impression he made on the day the sale was approved by the owners and Mayor de Blasio. He said all Mets employees will get their pre-pandemic salaries back and he is pledging $17.5 million to small businesses around the Queens, N.Y., area. How important do you think it is for a new owner like Cohen to show they’re not just there for the team but are acting as an ambassador to the city as well?

A: Steve Cohen knows what a honeymoon period is in ownership and he’s taking advantage of it. This is a guy who has been a lifelong Mets fan, wants to be loved by Mets fans, and was going to be loved to begin with because he was coming in and replacing an ownership group that Mets fans did not like very much in the Wilpons. Now there’s going to be that automatic goodwill and now he’s trying to build on that with things like paying employees, getting employees’ salaries back up, creating a relief fund for the seasonal employees like the vendors who would work at Citi Field but didn’t get that opportunity in 2020, which is really nice to see when you juxtapose it against the rest of the industry that is cutting jobs. It’s easier to do when you weren’t an owner in 2020 for most of the season and he didn’t endure the financial losses of a shortened 2020 season. Cohen’s net worth grew over the last couple of months in a way that most major league baseball owners didn’t see. I think he’s winning the public relations battle at this point. I think that the honeymoon period can continue for a while, especially with how they are set up this offseason compared to the rest of the league, but then it just comes down to how the team does on the field overall. Eventually, it will be the judgement of what the product is on the field versus all of those other things, and he’s got to be able to deliver on his promise of a winning team for Mets fans to continue to feel quite this way about him.

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