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With players such as unicorn Shohei Ohtani and Korean superstar Jung-hoo Lee likely to hit the open market next winter, Steve Cohen would surely like this to be the final season in which the Mets are not a superteam.
But hours before the Mets did what they do better than anyone else — win on Opening Day — Cohen and those running his team received another reminder the construction of a superteam needs something even more vast than billions of dollars: Time.
The Mets’ attempt to take the shortest route to building a superteam took another hit early Thursday afternoon, when Justin Verlander went on the injured list hours before the Mets’ 5-3 win over the Marlins.
(For those of you keeping score at home, the Mets are now 41-21 on Opening Day, which is doubly remarkable considering they lost their first eight openers)
Still, it was another reminder that while Cohen’s willingness to spend many millions of dollars on free agent players is a refreshing departure from the Wilpon-era norm, the splashy signings alone won’t achieve his goal of turning the Mets into the east coast version of the Dodgers.
It’s easy to forget the Dodgers’ current regular season dynasty (nobody said it was fair to judge teams on how they fare in the sprint of the postseason, but here we are) didn’t begin as soon as the franchise was freed from Frank McCourt’s disastrous grip.
From 2012-16 — the first five seasons under the Guggenheim ownership — the Dodgers averaged 91 wins and won the first four of their eight straight NL West crowns. But the Dodgers began the true construction of their powerhouse by drafting or signing future stars Corey Seager, Walker Buehler, Will Smith, Gavin Lux, Cody Bellinger, Alex Verdugo, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin and Julio Urias.
Those 10 players have combined to register 95.0 in WAR for the Dodgers since 2017, a span in which the Dodgers have gone 562-309 while winning three pennants and one World Series.
The pipeline has both been used to further fortify the big league team — Verdugo was one of the prospects traded to the Red Sox in the are-you-sure-you-really-want-to-do-this-Boston deal that sent Mookie Betts west — and replenish it. Seager exited as a free agent following the 2021 season and was replaced by Trea Turner, who was acquired along with Max Scherzer from the Nationals for a quartet of prospects in July 2021. Turner departed for the Phillies over the winter and was slated to be replaced by Lux before he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in March.
Thanks to the thriftiness of the Wilpons and some scattershot drafting in their final years at the helm, the cupboard was mostly bare for Cohen and his cadre of front office executives (let’s not get into how many tries it took to find Billy Eppler). Players drafted or signed by the Mets from 2015 through 2020 have posted a combined 19.2 WAR for the team. Most of that has been accumulated by Pete Alonso, who has 14.2 WAR since debuting in 2019.
The farm system is beginning to improve, but of the six Mets prospects ranked in Baseball America’s top 100 entering the season, only one was a pitcher. And 30-year-old Kodai Senga signed with the Mets after spending 11 seasons and throwing more than 1,300 innings in his native Japan.
Fifteen of the Mets’ top 30 prospects at MLB.com are pitchers. But that group has combined to throw only 1,633 1/3 innings — an average of just under 109 innings per pitcher — as professionals and includes just two hurlers who have advanced beyond Single-A.
So as much as signing Verlander and pairing him with frenemy Max Scherzer provided a classic throwback winning the back pages moment for the Mets, it was also essential to constructing the bridge to an era in which the Mets could rely on their player development system to serve as the base of a superteam.
That bridge, which was shaky when Scherzer and deGrom combined for 209 2/3 innings last season, is no sturdier to start this season. Jose Quintana, who signed a two-year deal in December, is expected to miss at least half the season after being diagnosed with a stress fracture and a benign lesion on a rib. Now Verlander is hurt, reminding the Mets that as easy as it is to envision Cohen’s billions building a superteam, it’s going to take time, a far more expensive and amorphous currency.