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One veteran agent used the word “chaos” to describe the intensity of action after a three-month lockout, another said, “crazy.”
Whatever the term, the scramble to find jobs and complete rosters as camps simultaneously opened was front and center once a new collective bargaining agreement was ratified. But a question did linger on this baseball information superhighway, and industry folks stayed as curious now as during the period of inaction:
Just how much is Steve Cohen going to spend on the Mets’ payroll?
If you don’t recognize this obsession within the game, you were probably (smartly) ignoring baseball’s labor negotiations. Cohen’s fellow owners created a fourth luxury-tax super level motivated by a desire to try to erect some kind of stop sign — or at least a yield — on the $15 Billion Man. Will that work?
In the short term, Cohen has indicated he will use his largesse — emphasis on large — to try to buy contention, respectability and time until he can wipe away the Wilpon of it all from the Mets’ world and have the franchise functioning to his specifications. That could foster the first-ever $300 million MLB payroll. If not, it is going to be close.
The record for luxury-tax purposes was the Dodgers’ $297.9 million payroll in 2015, followed by their $285.6 million from last season. The only team currently within hailing distance of those totals are the Mets. And where does that Cohen-inspired super-tax threshold this year begin? It is $290 million. It’s probably just a coincidence.
How much Cohen will invest is not the only question that looms over the game as spring training begins. Here are five more that intrigue me:
Are the Blue Jays about to become a monster?
If the new playoff format, with six teams from each league, had been in place last season, the 91-win Blue Jays would have joined the 92-win Red Sox and Yankees as wild cards. To try to qualify this year, Toronto re-signed Jose Berrios and signed Kevin Gausman. The Jays lost Marcus Semien, but their rivals do not think Toronto is done with its significant spending.
The Jays have always had to deal with taking in Canadian dollars while paying players in American cash. Plus there always is a strong preference by a not insignificant group of players not to play in Canada. But the team’s parent company, Rogers Communication, did financially well during the pandemic and, word is, approved a meaningful payroll bump. And as the lone team in Canada, the Blue Jays have wide national appeal. They have strong homegrown talent, such as Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Alek Manoah. There are elements in place for a significant run.
What’s next for the Rangers?
Texas spent a half a billion dollars on a new middle infield — Semien and Corey Seager — and still may be a fourth-place team. That could be a compliment in the AL East, with the Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox and Yankees, but it is not in the AL West. Even with the addition of Jon Gray, Texas needs more pitching. And even with Semien and Seager, the Rangers also need more hitting. The Phillies have spent big in recent years on Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto and Zack Wheeler, yet still not made the playoffs. Are the Rangers on a similar course?
On the subject of not making the playoffs, what’s up with the Mariners?
They finished one game behind the Blue Jays last year with 90 wins. That kept them out of the playoffs for a 20th straight season. That is the longest active drought in the four major North American team sports. Those 90 wins, nevertheless, would suggest good days on the horizon, right? Except Seattle has had six winning records since 2003, and in the subsequent seasons, they won 63, 61, 61, 76, 78 and 68 games.
Will this time be different? The Mariners do have a well-regarded group of youngsters, including outfielder Julio Rodriguez, who perhaps is ready to break through. But the Mariners also have money to spend and an aching need for two more bats. Is that a Kris Bryant type? There have been indications Seattle is comfortable and confident with J.P. Crawford at shortstop. But could the Mariners play for Carlos Correa?
Can Shohei Ohtani do it again?
Maybe I just have a thing for the AL West, with the Angels joining this question procession after the Rangers and Mariners. But Ohtani remains arguably the most compelling player in the game. For the first time in his four Los Angeles seasons, he stayed healthy and brilliant in both of his disciplines in 2021. He pitched to a 3.18 ERA in 23 starts. He hit 46 homers. And just to prove he can pretty much do anything, Ohtani also stole 26 bases and tied for the MLB lead with eight triples.
That all earned him an MVP award. But the Angels finished below .500 for the sixth straight year. They have only made the playoffs once in Mike Trout’s 11-year career. Trout was hurt last year. So was Anthony Rendon. If they, and new addition Noah Syndergaard, remain healthy, the Angels have a shot. But it is hard to see how the team, as configured now, can excel unless Ohtani does it again. As a pitcher. And as a hitter.
What’s up with Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich?
In 2019, they finished 1-2 in the NL MVP race. They were in their prime. The lefty hitters seemed poised to thrive for years.
The following spring, the Brewers gave Yelich a nine-year, $215 million extension. Since then, he has hit .234 with a .752 OPS while Bellinger has been at .195/.642. Yelich is entering his age-30 season. There are still seven years left on his contract. Milwaukee has navigated well around Yelich’s plummet. But that will become hard to sustain if Yelich does not earn his money.
Bellinger, who will play at 26 in 2022, will be a free agent after next season. But there was some wonder whether the Dodgers would even tender him after he was among the majors’ worst hitters last season. Ultimately, he was too talented to give up on for a mega-market team. His career, though, has reached a fork in the road.