When the owners of Major League Baseball tried to curb overspending by creating a third tier of the luxury tax, it was immediately dubbed the Cohen tax. Mets owner Steven A. Cohen took that as a compliment.
“It’s better than a bridge with your name on it,” he said at the time.
Cohen, a billionaire who is baseball’s wealthiest owner, swore the tax wouldn’t stop him from spending, and he proved it in a crazy offseason he tracked the season of 101 big-spending team wins Justin Verlander, Brandon Nimmo and Edwin Diaz. The spending spree continued on Saturday when the Mets signed Kodai Senga, a right-handed starter for Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, to a five-year, $75 million deal.
Senga will serve as the No. 3 starter for the Mets. His contract, which has not yet been finalized but was confirmed by a person familiar with the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity, will push the team much further into the Cohen tax. Combined with the other tiers of the luxury tax, the Mets are currently expected to add about $80 million to the team’s payroll in 2023, for a combined outlay of more than $400 million — by far the highest total amount. over spent on an MLB team.
With Senga, 29, the Mets buy a free agent ace who has long wanted a chance to prove himself against MLB hitters with his “phantom fork,” his own take on forkball popularized by players like Hall of Famer Jack Morris and Dave Stewart. He completes his signature pitch with a fastball that hit 101.9 miles per hour last season.
In 11 Nippon Professional Baseball seasons with the Hawks, Senga was 87-44 with a 2.59 ERA. In 2022, he was 11-6 with a 1.94 ERA and 156 strikeouts in 144 innings. Like Mets co-aces Verlander and Max Scherzer, Senga has a championship pedigree, having been the No. 1 starter for the Hawks as they captured four straight Japan Series titles from 2017-2020.
Senga asked to be posted after the 2019 and 2020 seasons, but was denied by the Hawks, the only Nippon Professional Baseball team that hasn’t posted a player under the current system. Instead, Senga was forced to wait until he reached international free agency, meaning the Mets weren’t required to pay the Hawks a fee to sign him.
Several clubs would be interested in Senga. He is a longtime fan of Yu Darvish, a San Diego Padres starter who also started his career in Nippon Professional Baseball. Because Senga and Darvish trained together during offseasons in Japan, there was speculation that the Padres might have the inside track to sign him.
“I like him,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said of Senga during winter meetings in San Diego last week, while noting that it’s difficult to pitch Japanese pitchers for various reasons, such as the increased workload of launching every five days instead of once a week, as is done in Japan. Also, the size of the baseball itself is a bit smaller in Japan.
But “a good pitcher is a good pitcher,” Showalter said. “You always think of the pitching load every five days versus the other, but they said that about really good Japanese pitchers who came here and did well.
“So it’s a good one. We spoke with him. And he is impressive. You can see why they think so highly of him. I enjoyed our little chat with him.
Senga threw a no-hitter in 2019 for the Hawks and also pitched for Japan at the 2020 Olympics, working a scoreless sixth inning in relief in the gold medal game as Japan beat the United States. United, 2-0.
Senga’s main concern will be its durability. He was out for most of 2014 with a shoulder injury and has had periodic elbow pain since. Partly because of this, he pitched over 150 innings in a season only twice in 11 seasons. His 144 innings pitched in 2022 were the most he had pitched since 2017.
Showalter compared Japan’s change of routine in MLB to that of a “Friday night pitcher” in college baseball. “They launch maybe once a week,” he said. “All of a sudden, you’re being asked to post every five days. Now they throw 140, 150 throws once a week, so can you shorten it to 90 and 100 and have them throw every five days? And OK, what if you’re wrong? It’s the thing you always think about.
No doubt deterred the Mets from continuing their spending spree this month, in which they committed $359 million to five free agents: Senga, Verlander (two years, $86.6 million), Nimmo (eight years, $162 million), left-back setter Jose Quintana (two years, $26 million) and reliever David Robertson (one year, $10 million). The Mets also extended Díaz (five years, $102 million) on the biggest contract ever given to a relief pitcher.
Since the offseason has yet to include the addition of an impact bat, the Mets may not be done spending money.
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