Rosenthal: Mets won’t be silent in free agency, and Yoshinobu Yamamoto might be best fit

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I know what Max Scherzer said, that New York Mets general manager Billy Eppler told him the team would not reload for 2024, pointing instead to 2025 at the earliest and more like 2026 to contend.

People in Mets uniforms aren’t buying it. People in the industry aren’t buying it. None of us should buy it, considering Steve Cohen’s willingness to spend like no owner in major-league history.

Just for the sake of discussion, let’s say Cohen signs Shohei Ohtani to a 13-year, $650 million contract this offseason. Is anyone going to say, “Steve, you said you wouldn’t do this?” Likewise, if Cohen breaks the bank for Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, is anyone going to protest, “No, Steve, you promised!”

The Mets are going to sign free agents. They never said they wouldn’t. What they are not going to do is sign future Hall of Fame pitchers in their late 30s or early 40s, seeing as how that didn’t work out so well.

Scherzer said the Mets told him they would trade not only 2023 free agents at the deadline, but also players under club control only through 2024. The Mets shied away from the latter, except in the case of Justin Verlander, who also has a conditional player option for 2025. Three potential 2024 free agents — first baseman Pete Alonso, left-handed starter José Quintana and left-handed reliever Brooks Raley — remained with the club.

As Eppler said, this was not a rebuild, not a liquidation, not a fire sale. Nor is it a withdrawal from spending. No, the Mets’ plan, according to sources briefed on the club’s thinking, is to sign free agents whose trajectories line up with the young players they are developing for 2025 and beyond.

Cohen will be disciplined, if you want to call it that. He will just be exercising a different kind of discipline than in his previous three seasons as owner.

Ohtani will hit the market at 29. Eppler was the general manager who signed him for the Angels. Cohen was on the field at the Tokyo Dome in March before Ohtani’s start against Italy in the World Baseball Classic. If anyone thinks Cohen is going to pass on an opportunity to pursue the greatest player of our generation and maybe greatest of all time, they haven’t been paying attention. Ohtani’s value exceeds what he does on the field, which is pretty damn valuable. But no one knows what he truly wants, so he easily could sign with another club.

Billy Eppler shakes hands with Shohei Ohtani during his introduction with the Angels in 2017. (Josh Lefkowitz / Getty Images)

Who else would fit? The market for position players is quite thin, and the Mets’ lineup is fairly set. Most of the best free-agent starting pitchers — Aaron Nola, Blake Snell, Eduardo Rodríguez (if he opts out) — already are 30, and likely to seek long contracts. Julio Urías is an exception, pitching at 27 next season. But that only means his agent, Scott Boras, probably will want a deal stretching until oh, 2050 or so.

The free-agent pitcher who probably makes the most sense for the Mets’ new world order is one who has yet to pitch in the majors, Yamamoto.

The Orix Buffaloes are expected to post Yamamoto this offseason. Eppler watched him in person during the WBC, and according to the Mets’ network, SNY also traveled to Japan to see him pitch this year.

In each of the past two seasons, Yamamoto was the Pacific League MVP and winner of the Eiji Sawamura Award, the Japanese version of the Cy Young. This season could be no different. Yamamoto’s ERA through 16 starts is 1.57. The previous two seasons, it was 1.39 and 1.68. And here’s the best part, from the Mets’ perspective and every other major-league club’s as well:

Thursday is Yamamoto’s birthday. And he will be only 25 years old.

The frenzy for Yamamoto will not be at the level it will be for Ohtani, but it will be intense. There is no guarantee the Mets get him, just as there is no guarantee they will get Ohtani. But Yamamoto will still be in prime as the Mets’ top prospects start to reach the majors.

By 2025, the Mets should know whether Brett Baty is their long-term third baseman, Mark Vientos is capable of handling a defensive position and just how Ronny Mauricio fits, knowing he will not be at shortstop with Francisco Lindor under contract through 2031.

The three youngsters the team acquired for Scherzer and Verlander — infielder Luisangel Acuña, Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford — are estimated to arrive in 2024, ‘25 and ‘26, respectively, according to MLB Pipeline. Catcher Kevin Parada, the team’s first-round pick a year ago eventually could form a formidable 1-2 punch behind the plate with Francisco Alvarez. Right-hander Mike Vasil looks like a future rotation piece, and the Mets need to hit on some of their other pitching prospects as well.

As for 2024, the outlook isn’t necessarily bleak. The rotation will need work, yes. But Edwin Díaz will be back closing. The lineup will include Alonso, Lindor, Alvarez, center fielder Brandon Nimmo and second baseman/outfielder Jeff McNeil, who over the last three weeks finally has started to resemble the hitter who entered the season with a career .827 OPS. Sure, the Mets might require a stopgap on at least one outfield corner — they cannot count on Starling Marte, who has two years left on his contract. Yet it’s not as if the group is hopeless.

Alonso will be a fascinating decision. Some of the more analytical members of the Mets’ front office might recoil at the notion of going long-term with a first baseman who will turn 30 when he hits the free-agent market. But Alonso, like the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, has proven he can thrive in New York. He is the first Met to produce four seasons of at least 35 home runs. And, last anyone checked, age 30 is not age 40.

Cohen will not want to go nine years with Alonso the way the Yankees did with Judge as he turned 31. But what about a five- or six-year contract with an average annual value in the $30 million range? Such a deal would beat the $26 million AAV the Cardinals awarded Paul Goldschmidt at 31 in a five-year extension, and the $24.7 million AAV the Dodgers gave Freddie Freeman at 32 in a six-year, free-agent deal.

We know Cohen has the money. We know he’s going to spend it. At this point, it’s just a question of which players he deems worthy of investment. With Alonso a possible exception, perhaps it’s best to rank the potentially available players by their birthdays. The plan is to go young.

(Top photo of Yoshinobu Yamamoto: Megan Briggs / Getty Images)

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