Yoshinobu Yamamoto's free agency pits Yankees against Mets

AP Photo/Toru Hanai

In the more than six decades they have shared New York, the relationship between the Yankees and Mets has been mostly polite -- strangely polite -- with the notable exception of that jagged bat barrel Roger Clemens bounced across the path of Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series. When the Yankees were great, the Mets were in down cycles, and when the Yankees were in competitive lulls, the Mets soared.

While they have shared stars -- Yogi Berra, Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, David Cone -- they've never been in a bare-knuckled, whose-wallet-is-bigger bidding war for the same free agent. Oh sure, they both had interest in Mike Mussina when the Hall of Fame right-hander was available, but Mussina was inclined to pitch for the Yankees. There was the Carlos Beltran saga in the winter of 2004-05, when Beltran eventually took the Mets' offer because he couldn't entice the Yankees to be all-in. When Aaron Judge became a free agent last year, the Mets stood down, never seriously engaging Judge, not even to drive up the price for the Yankees.

But that was then and this is now: Each team is in full pursuit of the same player -- Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the 25-year-old right-hander from Bizen, Japan, who fuels dreams of change for each organization. The Mets' Steve Cohen, the richest owner in baseball, is squaring off against Hal Steinbrenner, who oversees the most valued franchise in the sport, and the second-most valued sports team in the world according to Forbes.

Cohen flew to Japan to meet with Yamamoto on the pitcher's home turf, before hosting him at Cohen's estate over the weekend. Similarly, Steinbrenner -- whose phone work closed the deal to re-sign Judge -- is right in the middle of the Yankees' pitch. "Hal is fully engaged with this," said one source.

Cohen and Steinbrenner not only have themselves to contend with but a handful of other organizations, too. They will have to outbid the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants, franchises in various states of desperation, as well as the Los Angeles Dodgers, who just doled out the most expensive contract in the history of the sport in signing Shohei Ohtani. Other clubs have been involved in this process, too, like the Philadelphia Phillies.

For the Mets, the signing of Yamamoto would squelch the notion that the team is strategically retreating in 2024. He would join Kodai Senga at the top of the rotation, surrounded on the roster by stars like Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso, Francisco Alvarez, Brandon Nimmo and closer Edwin Diaz. There would be hope in Citi Field of an immediate rebound from the disaster of 2023, from the awkward firings of manager Buck Showalter and general manager Billy Eppler. David Stearns, the team's new head of baseball operations, would be credited with somehow luring Yamamoto to the Mets, just as Eppler was treated like the Ohtani whisperer after Ohtani picked the Los Angeles Angels during Eppler's tenure there as GM.

Cohen would get the biggest plaudits, of course, because it would be his dollars that would be the difference-maker. Fred Wilpon, his predecessor, never really battled previous Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for players, but if the Mets land Yamamoto over their rivals Cohen would win the battle of New York. The signings of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander were a bust -- both players were moved at last season's trade deadline with the Mets punting on 2023 -- but Cohen would again demonstrate a willingness to shake up the Old Order. "He'd go from having the biggest payroll ever to having the most expensive pitcher ever," said one high-ranked executive. "He's not playing nice."

If the Yankees win the Yamamoto bidding, they could put themselves in position to return to the playoffs after their wildly frustrating 82-80 summer saw them miss out on October for the first time since 2016. Yamamoto would be the other rotation superstar alongside Cy Young Award winner Gerrit Cole. Judge is reportedly fully healthy and he'll have the advantage of batting back-to-back with future Hall of Famer Juan Soto -- at least for one season. If the Yankees land Yamamoto, they will go back to being the Evil Empire, the wealthiest team armed with the two most expensive pitchers in Major League Baseball. Hal Steinbrenner is constantly measured against the standard of his free-spending father, and Yankees fans would agree the Yamamoto signing is something George would love.

Like Cohen, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman traveled across the globe to watch Yamamoto pitch. There is video of him in the front row, standing and cheering. Cashman and manager Aaron Boone are on probation in the eyes of many Yankees fans, but if they land Yamamoto and win the World Series next season, all perceived transgressions will be forgiven.

Yamamoto, a superstar in Nippon Professional Baseball, has made a strong impression in his meetings with MLB teams. "This is a guy who is all about winning," one front office type said. "He is all about greatness. He wants to be great and he wants to be a part of something great."

There is quiet confidence in the Yankees' organization that they have a real shot. There is a belief in the Mets' organization that in the end, Cohen will make the most significant offer. There is wariness, in both organizations, about the power of the Dodgers.

The Mets and Yankees await the Yamamoto decision that could shift the balance of power between the New York teams and leave one franchise -- if not both -- feeling bloodied and left behind.