Most major league owners treat their teams like businesses. Steve Cohen, one of his former employees said, approaches the Mets like something else entirely.
“The way he looks at this business is so different than his hedge fund,” the employee said Wednesday. “It’s more like how he buys art. And he just spends whatever it takes on art. The guy’s got a billion dollars worth of art in his house. He gets it because he can.”
As baseball’s wealthiest owner, Cohen is better positioned to assemble a super-team than any other. But the fraternity of owners does not usually look kindly to those who break from the pack, particularly when it raises costs for them.
“I think it’s going to have consequences for him down the road,” said an official with another major league team who was not authorized to speak publicly. “There’s no collusion. But … there was a reason nobody for years ever went past $300 million. You still have partners, and there’s a system.”
Cohen’s choice to hike his payroll to upward of $380 million before luxury-tax penalties — with a 12-year, $315 million agreement with Carlos Correa his latest prize — has already polarized the industry. He’s not just blowing past $293 million, which is the fourth and highest tier of the competitive balance tax — the penalty level introduced to the sport in March, which was immediately dubbed the “Steve Cohen tax.” He’s taken his payroll to a total level the sport hasn’t seen ever. And relative to his peers’ spending, Cohen is an outlier the game hasn’t seen since George Steinbrenner.
For at least two other groups, Cohen is a blessing: Mets fans, for one. And players. Cohen wants to win, which players love. But his spending also grows their overall markets and their haul.
Why have baseball players and their union fought against a salary cap for so long? The news you woke up to Wednesday morning is one of the many reasons. The Mets almost certainly could not sign Correa this winter in a cap system. Another Steinbrenner could never rise to spend again, period.
Steinbrenner’s son Hal, the Yankees’ chairman, has been more reserved with his spending relative to his father or Cohen. After a news conference for Aaron Judge on Wednesday, he said he didn’t regret voting for Cohen to become an owner.
“I don’t think I’ve ever regretted voting for any owner,” Steinbrenner said.
When a reporter told Steinbrenner that Cohen’s overnight agreement with Correa had “big-footed” the Judge announcement, Steinbrenner seemed amused.
“That sounds ugly: big-footed, what does that even mean?” he said. “It doesn’t bother me. Look, Steve’s put together a great team. We have a great team, too. So it doesn’t bother me. The timing is what it is. I’m focused on today.”
Steinbrenner generally praised the Mets, calling it “phenomenal” for the city and rivalry to have two great baseball teams.
There’s no guarantee the Mets win, of course. As another pricey Cohen pick-up, Justin Verlander, noted Tuesday, “the playoffs are a crapshoot.” But the Mets’ winter is arguably a boon to the sport. They’re creating a lot of news, and maybe more importantly to an entertainment business, they’re creating a storyline: the Evil Empire reimagined. Baseball thrives when there is theater, and teams trying to one-up each other creates drama.
“David and Goliath,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said Wednesday. “I think it’s all good for narratives. They’re trying to put together a team that can’t be beat, and that their competition’s going to look forward to trying to beat.
“There’s a lot of owners out there spending a lot of money to make their franchises better, not just Steve Cohen and the New York Mets. He’s not a standalone in that way. We’ve spent a lot of money ourselves this winter. But there’s a lot of teams moving and shaking, and in most cases, that costs money.”
Fans of teams in smaller markets might disagree.
“Our sport feels broken now,” a different rival executive said Wednesday. “We’ve got somebody with three times the median payroll and has no care whatsoever for the long-term of any of these contracts, in terms of the risk associated with any of them. How exactly does this work? I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around it.”
That leads back to an age-old question: Are other owners not able to spend, or not willing to spend? Many with the league and some clubs would say the former, depending on the team, and many on the players’ side would suggest the latter. What teams believe they can afford is subjective based on what individual owners feel is appropriate for them, and most club financial records are not publicized. But different clubs definitely do have different revenues, and Cohen certainly has the deepest pockets based on reporting of his net worth.
“I think everyone in this room understands that we have a level of revenue disparity in this sport that makes it impossible for some of our markets to compete at some of the numbers we’ve seen,” commissioner Rob Manfred said generally at the Winter Meetings earlier this month. “And, you know, that’s not a positive. It’s like everything else in life, there’s good and bad in it.”
Whether Cohen ultimately cares how other owners feel, or whether he could actually be meaningfully hurt if he ignores those feelings, is a different question.
“This game is based on partnership and relationships, and these small markets are going to be really pissed at him,” the club official said. “They’re going to try and gin up s— and cause Rob (Manfred) to f—— get pissed at him. It’s not that they can do anything to him, but everybody needs help in this game. I don’t think he’s going to get any help.”
How much did those attitudes hamper Steinbrenner in the end? Other owners did set out to change the system, at the least. Cashman last year noted that recent CBAs were designed “to prevent the Yankees from being the Yankees.”
Which brings us to the most recent CBA. One of the trade-offs the owners received for increasing the CBT thresholds was the creation of a new penalty tier that many in the industry thought only the Mets or the Dodgers would be likely to approach. In 2022, any dollars spent above $290 million would be taxed starting at 80 percent. The Mets were over by about $10 million.
In 2023, that upper tier starts at $293 million, and the Mets will be taxed at 90 percent for every dollar above. (They’re at a higher percentage this year because they’re a second-time offender.)
“If he would have went up to the Cohen tax, a little over, I think he would have been fine,” the club official said of Cohen. “But the fact that he blew past it, it kind of like embarrassed Rob and a lot of people. He went so far beyond it, it rendered the whole CBA — made them look stupid on the CBA negotiation. He flaunted it in their face.”
Hal Steinbrenner was a part of Manfred’s labor committee that worked closely on the new CBA. Wasn’t the fourth tier intended to dissuade exactly what Cohen has done?
“Well, or anybody,” Steinbrenner said Wednesday. “Clearly, yeah clearly, competitive balance is important to the game, and I remember meeting with you guys in March and I said, ‘No teams’ fans should come to spring training thinking they have no chance to make the playoffs.’ That’s not good for baseball. So, yeah, there was certainly a purpose to that.”
But there appears reason to doubt that the players or the owners thought the Cohen tax would have a strong effect. In the 2023 Mets case, every dollar over $293 million would have been taxed at 75 percent in the old CBA, compared to 90 now. A 15 percent difference, particularly for an owner already inclined to spend so much, is apparently not too meaningful.
In March, the owners certainly would have loved something more stringent — a higher tax rate, for example, never mind a cap. But the players also would have fought against it. Ultimately, baseball’s economic system grants an owner the freedom to spend, with some restraints. Players have long wanted that freedom preserved.
“If an owner is willing to spend 90 percent tax over $300 million, no CBA would solve for that absent an actual cap,” a person on the league’s side said Wednesday.
Nonetheless, as the players’ side has reckoned with in the last five years after the 2016 CBA, the result is the result, no matter the intent. The “Cohen tax” isn’t doing much of anything to deter its namesake, and Manfred might have some increasingly unhappy owners to calm down because of that.
And this is where Cohen’s spending could have a deeper effect. It’d be a little hyperbolic, a little cheeky to already be asking: Where were you when Steve Cohen started the 2026 lockout? But Cohen may have lit the fuse on perhaps the most quintessential behind-the-scenes fight in baseball: the big market versus the smaller market.
— The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal contributed to this story.
(Photo of Steve Cohen: Jim McIsaac / Getty Images)