Steven Matz to Cardinals Puts Steve Cohen on Tilt

There are two narratives to consider with Steven Matz, who signed with the Cardinals last Wednesday. There’s the straight-up baseball story of a solid pitcher joining the rotation of a good team. Then there’s the seemingly never-ending soap opera that is the Mets, whom he spurned in the final moments of his free agency for St. Louis.

Let’s start with the baseball side of things. Matz immediately fills a rotation spot for a Cardinals team that will likely be in the thick of things in the NL Central in 2022. At four years and $11 million per, with the chance to earn an additional $4 million over the life of the contract via performance bonuses, he topped the length and total value, though not AAV, predicted by Ben Clemens in our top 50 free agents list, on which he ranked no. 31, and beat the crowd-sourced numbers in each category.

The lefty will slot somewhere in the middle of the St. Louis starter group, certainly following Adam Wainwright and Jack Flaherty, and if there’s anyone on the market who fits the definition of middle-rotation starter, it’s Matz. As 2020 gets further away in our collective rear-view mirrors, we’ve learned how much data from that season is an outlier, and an extreme one at times, as was the case with him; he was northing short of miserable in his nine appearances that season. And while he had his share of health issues in his earlier years, if you take his three most recent full seasons, he’s been the roughly the same player in terms of both consistent performance and availability.

He doesn’t have the kind of high-spin, bat-missing stuff that teams tend to look for in the modern game, but Matz keeps the ball on the ground at roughly a 50% rate and should benefit greatly from a Cardinals defense that represents a significant upgrade from what was behind him in Toronto. He leans primarily on his 93–96-mph sinker and throws a pair of breaking balls roughly a quarter of the time, preferring his curve over his slider, and for good reason, considering the quality of the pitch. Changeups are rare but shouldn’t be, as he’s added a few inches of drop on the pitch over the past few years, leading to an offering that performs quite well.

During those previously mentioned three full seasons, Matz averaged 30 starts and 155 innings per, so he’s been taking the bump every five days, but going deep into games is not something he brings to the table, as he got more than 18 outs just three times in 2021. He can throw a strike when he has to but needs to play around the edges in order to succeed with his arsenal, leading to deeper counts, more than 100 pitches per six innings, and the need for multiple relievers to finish the job.

This isn’t the kind of signing that usually makes headlines, but headlines were made nonetheless, and by the team that didn’t sign him. As Matz’s deal broke early Wednesday, Mets owner Steven Cohen angrily tweeted, “I’m not happy this morning. I’ve never seen such unprofessional behavior exhibited by a player’s agent. I guess words and promises don’t matter.” This is seemingly based on Matz — or more likely his representatives, who were speaking to multiple teams during the week — not circling back to the Mets to check in before he agreed to terms with the Cardinals.

Hey, it happens. As a basic rule in nearly every front office, no deal gets celebrated until the physical is complete and the signature is on the contract; before those two things happen, the player is not a part of your club. Every team with concrete interest in a free agent will request that agents check in before a final decision is made to give the team a chance to up the offer or bow out with the knowledge that the player is getting more — either in terms of money, opportunity, or quality of life aspects — than it can offer. Sometimes teams get that call, and sometimes they don’t, and it’s a 50/50 shot at best. When the call doesn’t happen, it’s understandable to get frustrated a bit. But making a story out of it, as opposed to just moving on to the next target (which to the Mets’ credit they did in droves later in the week), isn’t the best use of anyone’s time.

Prior to the 2019 season, the Astros identified a free-agent pitcher they were interested in. He wasn’t a big name, but he would require a major league deal, though it wouldn’t have any big numbers in terms of either length or AAV. He did have a big-name agent, though, and I was assigned the negotiation. After a couple of initial discussions, I informed the agent that we were preparing an offer and I would be in touch with him soon. The front office got back to work on the player, an initial offer was agreed upon by the end of the day, and I planned on calling the agent the next morning to push our offer across the transom.

Instead, I woke up to Twitter reports of the player agreeing to terms with another team. To be fair, the player signed a deal that far surpassed what the Astros were going to offer or any number they’d even push to. Still, I was a bit perturbed. This was more than a circle back request; this was the promise of an impending offer to the player that was ignored, as the player signed elsewhere before I could even put the offer in front of him.

I decided to call the agent the next day, knowing that he’d be awfully busy the day of the signing crossing T’s and dotting I’s on the contract while putting together a schedule for a physical and actual signing. When I finally connected with him, I discussed the situation, and there were clearly some miscommunications that occurred on both ends of the phone during our conversations. The conversation never got heated, but it was rather open and honest, and in the end, it made me a better communicator and gave me a better understanding of free-agent dynamics. I hope for the sake of the Mets that Cohen and Matz’ agent, Rob Martin, will or already have had a similar conversation, and I hope Cohen learns from it. He certainly did not learn anything immediately; less than an hour after his angry tweet surfaced, the New York Post’s Joel Sherman took to Twitter to relay a conversation with Cohen in which the owner said he was upset that Matz and his representative pursued the Mets, as opposed to vice-versa.

Of course they did; that’s what good agents do. They are proactive in pursuing the best deals for their clients, and that pursuit involves actively marketing the services of their clients to potential suitors. That’s why agents go to the GM Meetings. That’s why they make books about the players they represent to distribute to teams. That’s why they blow up executives’ phones during the Winter Meetings looking for some face-to-face interaction. That’s absolutely their job, and it’s what Martin did, and it’s standard business practice in one that Cohen, despite his considerable monetary success elsewhere, knows precious little about.

So while Cohen’s tweets and post-tweet comments can seem like sour grapes, they mostly come off as someone without much experience in the baseball world. From interns to players signed to nine-figure contracts, nothing about working or conducting business within the world of Major League Baseball is like any other business, and his considerable experience and business acumen don’t apply neatly to his new venture, leaving plenty of lessons to be learned that can only be taught within this industry. There is also an onus on Sandy Alderson and the three GMs that have served under Cohen during his brief 13-month tenure to educate him on the ways of this world, because it’s a damn unique one.

Kevin Goldstein is a National Writer at FanGraphs.

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2 years ago

Interesting inside view.