One heavyweight down, two remain – but with lots of hurdles.
Steve Cohen and Theo Epstein had a conversation about the Mets president of baseball operations job and decided the fit was not right. So the easiest solution to filling this vital role is off the board. Epstein was the simple path because 1) he is obviously overqualified for the role and 2) he was not affiliated with a team and, thus, the Mets did not need to seek permission to have a conversation.
The other two front-line possibilities for this job – Oakland executive VP of baseball operations Billy Beane and Milwaukee president of baseball operations David Stearns – both would need permission. That is among the hurdles; extremely so in Stearns’ case.
Cohen was frustrated last offseason when he did not have access to the top of his list for this position. In his day job – the one that made him billions of dollars – Cohen would just pursue whoever he wanted whenever he wanted for his hedge fund. It is one of the reasons he tabled hiring a president of baseball operations last year. In his thinking, it was better to wait than hire the wrong person. That began a chain that led to just a GM (Jared Porter), then an acting GM (Zack Scott) and another chapter of Mets dysfunction.
It is why getting the hire correct is still so vital. And now, Epstein is off the board.
He was always a long shot. When Epstein left the Cubs after the 2020 season, he took on two jobs: one with a private equity group that specializes in helping owners of sports leagues with finances and the other with the Commissioners Office to help with on-field matters, notably huge potential rule changes. So one position helps him form bonds and knowledge with, for example, rich folks who might be interested in buying a major league team, and the other allows him to ingratiate himself with and gain further knowledge of central baseball.
It works for his current desires. Epstein believes he was part of the analytic runaway that produced a duller on-field product and wants to be part of that solution. And then he wants to assemble a group to buy a team, have a stake in that organization and help re-imagine a franchise from bottom to top. Cohen’s conversation with Epstein was intriguing – the money and the big market could be seductive. But in many ways, Epstein has been there and done that.
He is going to the Hall of Fame one day as an executive for being the architect of curse-busting Red Sox and Cub championships. Doing it a third time would not enhance his reputation as failing might soil it some. Dealing with a down-and-out club or expansion team would provide the kind of challenge that now tempts Epstein.
So Cohen must hunt elsewhere. He has stated he does not want to train someone for this job. In many respects, he needs a new leader to teach him what he does not know about the baseball industry.
Beane is probably an easier get than Stearns. But why he is easier should provide the Mets pause. Beane is the A’s titular head of baseball operations, but clubs that deal with Oakland say that GM David Forst is the main man. Beane has many other interests, including being an in-demand public speaker and owning a piece of two European soccer teams.
If the Mets went with Beane, are they just getting Sandy Alderson 2.0, a 15-year junior version of Alderson who oversees baseball operations, but will not be grinding daily to run it? Perhaps that could work if Beane, for example, brought the personnel-evaluating skills of Billy Owens and/or respected manager Bob Melvin with him from Oakland. The A’s are in a transitory period which may end with them in Las Vegas. Still, would they let Beane or any of his lieutenants leave? For what level of compensation?
The sense in the game is that Beane, an Alderson protege from their shared Oakland time, is the Alderson’s first choice. The theory is that not only would it protect his job within the Mets – someone like Epstein might not want to have any potential interference in the line to the owner – but might also protect his son, Bryn Alderson, who last year was elevated to an assistant GM role.
Beane offered a non-denial denial earlier this week about the Mets job. He has substantial roots in California, which was a huge factor in turning down the chance to run the Red Sox baseball operations after the 2002 season (Epstein got the job). And he has twin teenage daughters now, which could lessen his appetite for relocation. But could he could think going full circle – he was a Mets first-round pick in 1980 – and getting out of the penny-pinching A’s world would make it worthwhile to, at 59, try the big-market approach?
Stearns, in many ways, is the more attractive candidate. He is 36. He grew up in Manhattan as a Mets fan. He worked briefly for the team on his rise in the game. He has constructed a playoff team four years in a row in Milwaukee (the Mets, in their history, have never even made the postseason three straight seasons). Those who know him say he is an expert at managing up and down, so that he has the personality to withstand Cohen’s demands.
But Cohen could not get access to him last year. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio is known within the game for championing the causes of small market owners. He is particularly annoyed that he cannot compete for certain players with big markets and, therefore, finds it offensive when he identifies a front office candidate like Stearns, pays him well for the market (Stearns is believed to be making more than $3 million this year) and then has big-market clubs come poaching those rising stars too. It is a principle thing, and Attanasio just might not come off of it.
But Stearns’ contract has just 2022 left. It is possible that he tells Attanasio that he will not re-sign because he wants a new challenge, a bigger market and/or to get home to New York. At that point, would the businessman in Attanasio win? Would he break the principle for significant compensation? That would mean a demand of a top prospect like Francisco Alvarez or Brett Baty. I doubt the Mets do that. But what if Cohen got Milwaukee out of some payroll prison by absorbing the potential $27.5 million 2022 salaries of Lorenzo Cain and Jackie Bradley Jr., while sending a piece like Taylor Megill to Milwaukee?
At that point, it would be a negotiation between two businessmen. The Mets could try to wait a year until Stearns is a free agent, but that would leave this important role unfilled a second straight year, which feels untenable. Plus, it would give others a chance at Stearns too – Stearns used to work for the Astros and their owner, Jim Crane, is a fan, as an example.
The Mets would love clarity on this job with so much to do this offseason, but nothing would happen with Stearns while the Brewers are in the playoffs. So does Cohen wait for Stearns, turn to Beane, really upend the industry by reaching out to Jeff Luhnow, go down his list with someone like the Dodgers’ Josh Byrnes or the Twins’ Derek Falvey, surprise us elsewhere?
One item did clear up as a heavyweight, Epstein, was removed from the competition.