Robinson Canó is the giant elephant in the room for the Mets
Canó's impact (or not) on the roster pales in comparison to his impact on the luxury tax payroll
There are so many problems for the Mets to address over the next several months, they’re almost impossible to count. Like, way too many. Of those countless problems, many of them have to be addressed in the coming weeks leading up to the GM meetings in November and ahead of the winter meetings in December.
Among those immediate problems is a giant elephant in the room, or on the whiteboard in their Citi Field conference room: Robinson Canó.
It’s not so much about what an aging (he will be 39 on Opening Day) and presumably clean Canó is or will be after playing in just 49 games between 2020 and 2021. Nor is it about how he might be accepted in a clubhouse after serving his 162-game PED suspension for a second such offense in 2021. It’s even less about what his role would be and how a designated hitter in the National League might or might not serve him a role on the Mets in 2022.
These are all understood problems with Canó. Subtract the PED suspension, and there are still questions surrounding Canó and how much value he might bring, what his role would be, and so on. But none of these issues make Canó the elephant in the room as much as a roster albatross.
What makes Canó said elephant — and a giant one at that — is his impact on the luxury tax payroll, whether he is ultimately with the Mets or not.
The Mets are on the hook for about $40 million of the $48 million owed to Canó through the 2023 season (the Mariners will pay him the remainder). The impact on the CBT/luxury tax payroll is the same at $20.25 million per year through 2023. That represents 15 percent of their current 2022 luxury tax payroll of $135 million (money owed to just eight players), and before the Mets retain or procure new talent as well as agree to terms for all pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players.
The luxury tax threshold has increased by $2 million in each of the last three seasons from $206 million to $210 million. Assuming the terms of a (potentially) new collective bargaining agreement include a similar kind of barrier, there will be a luxury tax or some kind of soft salary cap in place in future seasons. What that number is right now is unknown, but even if its raised by five percent in 2022 ($10.5 million) to $220.5 million, the Mets still have a problem with Cano’s salary with respect to the luxury tax.
Lets assume the Mets retain Michael Conforto and Noah Syndergaard on qualifying offers, which will reportedly be $18.4 million this fall. Lets also assume the Mets retain Javier Báez and Marcus Stroman with new contracts at $25 million per year for both. That results in another $86.8 million towards the luxury tax for four players they already had in 2021 on top of the $135 million towards the luxury tax committed to their already-contracted eight players, one of which is Canó. So, without adding any new talent, or signing a single one of their arbitration eligible or pre-arbitration eligible players, the Mets’ CBT/luxury tax payroll would sit at $221.8 million for 12 players. Even if this scenario unfolds differently, they’d need to commit similar dollars for comparable replacement talent, and have to go to the market to find new additional talent.
I don’t care how much money Steve Cohen has — committing more money plus the addition of an aging and controversial Canó with the legitimate risk of paying a penalty for breaching the luxury tax would be bad business, not to mention it would probably not alter the results very much on the field.
Yes, the luxury tax and it’s penalties could look a lot different in the near future, assuming the league and the MLBPA can agree to a new collective bargaining agreement at all over the next month. But that doesn’t mean it won’t exist in some form. So, the Mets need to figure out how to navigate those waters, even with the unknowns.
That starts with Canó’s contract, and figuring out how to account for that against whatever luxury tax threshold exists in 2022, whether he is with the Mets or not.
And what those answers are remain to be seen.
Make no mistake — this isn’t about how much Steve Cohen can afford, how much he wants to invest in payroll over the short and long term, or how much of a penalty he can or is willing to stomach if (or when) they breach the luxury tax threshold. He’s made it clear he is willing to breach the threshold under the right circumstances, and there’s really no path to fielding a competitive roster without doing so in 2022 and 2023, which is the right circumstance if he intends to reach his stated goal of winning a championship within three to five years of buying the team.
This is about smart baseball business, a balanced payroll and in-turn a balanced and better roster, whether they spend $150 million or $250 million in 2022.
Everyone knows how rich the owner is. But even the richest of people don’t want to pay $10 for a pack of gum.