Why Brodie Van Wagenen might succeed as Mets GM

MLB, Uncategorized

Mets

As the Mets move toward the finish line in their search to replace Sandy Alderson as GM, reports are stating that Brodie Van Wagenen, Doug Melvin, Kim Ng and Chaim Bloom are receiving second interviews. It has been a ponderous process for the Mets with rumors, innuendo and the familiar mocking the club must endure as a matter of course.

The inevitable questions about control, inherited staff, financial parameters and how much influence Jeff Wilpon will have will continue regardless of whom the Mets hire.

A total outsider like Van Wagenen might be viewed as a blatant attempt on the part of the Mets to reinvent the wheel, but it does make some sense and could succeed.

Let’s look at why.

Understanding both sides.

Any good lawyer will know how to make the other side’s argument. As a longtime player agent and co-head of CAA Sports’ baseball division, Wagenen has relationships with every major-league team and its executives. When trying to maximize the value of contracts and endorsements for his clients, he also needs to understand what the other side is thinking. It’s a short step over the velvet rope from being seller to the buyer.

This is not someone who will be parachuting in with theories, demands and expectations without having the faintest clue as to what really happens in the trenches.

He played baseball at a relatively high level.

Van Wagenen played baseball at Stanford University (as a teammate of Astros manager AJ Hinch). He wasn’t great, but he was serviceable. Playing at a Division I school in the Pac-10 – especially a school like Stanford that does not provide academic breaks to its athletes – is notable.

Many front office staffers are inhabiting a persona based on their environment. Chewing dip and carrying around an empty bottle in which to spit the juice does not make one a peer of professional athletes. If anything, it invites eye-rolling and ridicule from those same professional athletes. Similarly, uttering the lingo of athletes and trying to be one of them is transparent and deservedly ridiculed.

No, he did not make it to the major-leagues. He didn’t even play professionally. But as a former player, he will have a well-rounded idea of what it’s like to play and run a ballgame on the field, limiting the reactive know-it-all responses and insecurity that is inherent from those who cannot say the same and find themselves in an undeserved position as a front office boss, top-tier executive, or well-compensated analyst.

Delegation.

It is highly unlikely that Van Wagenen will be in the middle of every single deal big and small and interfere with the heads of the baseball departments.

The best executives are the ones who hire or retain smart people and allow them to do their jobs. If Omar Minaya, John Ricco, et, al. are part of the deal and will not be replaced, Van Wagenen can accept that and let them work without looking over their shoulder, sowing discord, and making passive aggressive maneuvers and statements to undermine them.

Managing the owner.

For an organization like the Mets, with Wilpon insisting that he will be involved, it takes people skills that a player agent must have to nudge him in the right direction without him knowing he’s being nudged. The idea of autonomy is secondary to this peacekeeping nuance.

Younger GMs are looking for autonomy and control in part because it grants them at least three years of on-field results being irrelevant. That’s three years of job security and blamelessness. They’re heavy on data and short on interpersonal skills. That is not an issue with Van Wagenen who understands the numbers, but also knows how to persuade.

The tactics.

There are repeated demands that the Mets tear the entire structure of the organization down to its exoskeleton and start over. Is that wise? With Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo and Amed Rosario among others, the team is not destitute at the big-league level. In the minors, the farm system is better than it was given credit for in preseason assessments.

Certainly, when there is a barren farm system, bloated contracts and declining players, it makes perfect sense to gut it and start over. The Mets are not in that position and hiring Van Wagenen is not only a signal that the Mets are serious about contending quickly, but that the Wilpons are ready to give him some money to spend to make that a reality instead of a bait-and-switch to sell season ticket plans with the same digging through the bargain bin, crafting an “if everything goes right” roster and hoping that it somehow works out.

Salesmanship.

What is an agent if not a salesman?

To take the job, he will need to divest himself of any agent-related interests in the players, but the relationships will remain in place because he got his players paid and because most players will be smart enough to realize that he might turn around and go back to being an agent after his tenure with the Mets concludes. Other organizations will know it too.

***

At first glance, the mentioning of player agents running an organization sounds quirky for its own sake. In the case of the Mets and Van Wagenen, it’s a radical departure from what the Mets and the Wilpons have done in the past and, in the grand scheme, it isn’t such a terrible idea.

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The Yankees will not fire Aaron Boone and here’s why

MLB, Uncategorized

Boone pic

Aaron Boone is not getting fired.

Prior to detailing the reasons why this is fact – not speculation – let’s start with a question:

If Boone were fired, whom do you want to replace him?

Before going off on a quick-fire response by saying Joe Girardi or asking for time to scour the web to see who’s available, know this: Boone got the job and will keep the job for precisely the same reasons many are calling for him to lose his job; and if, for whatever reason, the Yankees needed a new manager, they would hire someone exactly like Boone.

To understand why this is the case, it’s necessary to go back to what sparked the transition from what the manager was to what the manager is and how that impacts Boone’s job status and what general manager Brian Cashman wants.

Mitigation vs. Subjugation

When Cashman replaced Bob Watson as GM after the 1997 season, he inherited a manager, Joe Torre, who had been a borderline Hall of Fame player and had managed for two decades. Torre won a championship one year earlier and had the attitude and cachet to make his feelings known while ignoring the front office as to how the team should be run, sometimes insubordinately and profanely. George Steinbrenner was still alive and despite having mellowed ever-so-slightly from the raving mania that defined him through his second suspension in 1990, also needed to be dealt with.

In short, Cashman was in charge, but not in charge. His job was to placate, mitigate and manipulate, not subjugate as is the case today.

To say that Cashman walked into a trust fund worth billions is somewhat accurate. To gain access to that trust fund, however, he needed to subject himself to the irrational abuse of George Steinbrenner for twelve years and deal with the trustee – Torre – knowing that wresting power from the manager would take years, if it ever happened at all.

Torre had his job threatened multiple times and calls for a change grew louder and louder the longer the Yankees’ championship drought lasted. Both Cashman and Torre had grown tired of one another. Cashman for his limited influence with the manager and Torre with the lack of credit he felt he received for the Yankees’ return to glory under his command.

After another disappointing loss in the 2007 Division Series – their third in a row – and having blown a 3-0 Championship Series lead in 2004 against the hated Red Sox, Torre departed in an unhappy break that, in retrospect, was a divorce that both sides secretly wanted and did not openly express; they would have remained together had the lingering issues been worked out.

Throne of Games

The Yankees conducted a limited search for Torre’s replacement and it was the beginning of Cashman’s Machiavellian accumulation of power. Already, he was in the process of rendering impotent the Steinbrenner “Tampa faction” so nothing would interfere with, nor undo, his decisions, for better or worse. Now, he needed a manager. One year earlier, after Torre’s Yankees were stunningly eliminated by the Tigers in the ALDS, Torre’s dismissal was all-but assured and he was set to be replaced by a Steinbrenner favorite and longtime sparring partner Lou Piniella.

Had Piniella gotten the Yankees job, the roster would have been Piniella’s, not Cashman’s. The manager had no qualms about whispering to his close friends in the media – people with whom he’d had relationships for twenty-five years and for whom he was a frequent “unnamed” source for the inside scoop of the asylum known as the Bronx Zoo. The charming, handsome and quotable Piniella was the direct opposite from the nerdy, rodent-like, shifty and droning Cashman.

Whether he would have been an improvement over Torre was irrelevant. He was familiar; he was less imperious and more combustible than the taciturn Torre; and he’d basically write the media’s stories for them.

To be shunted to the side in such a way could have ended Cashman’s tenure as GM or rendered him as little more than a figurehead.

Of course, given the affinity Steinbrenner had for Piniella and Piniella’s magical touch with the media, this was the last thing Cashman wanted even if he felt a change was needed from Torre. From his viewpoint, replacing Torre with Piniella would have made things exponentially worse. Torre remained for one more year and Piniella was hired to manage the Cubs.

After Torre’s departure or firing (depending on whom you ask), the three main candidates to replace him were Tony Pena, Don Mattingly and Girardi.

Pena had managed the Royals, won Manager of the Year for coaxing an 83-79 season out of them in 2003 – their first season over .500 in a decade – and then resigned after 104 losses in 2004 and an 8-25 start in 2005. He’d become a loyal coach for Torre and did not appear to be particularly enthused about managing again.

Mattingly was a former Yankees star who was beloved throughout the organization, among the players, in the media and across the city – even Mets fans liked him.

Girardi had been a key, clutch player for Torre on the 1996, 1998 and 1999 championship teams; he was a leader; and he had the managerial experience that Mattingly lacked, also winning Manager of the Year in 2006 for the Marlins only to be fired by Jeffrey Loria, an owner whose capriciousness and reactivity harkened back to the worst days of Steinbrenner.

Girardi got the nod in part because he was younger than the set-in-his-ways Torre; because he had the experience that Mattingly did not; he was aware of the burgeoning use of advanced statistics and willing to implement them in ways Torre would not; and if it didn’t work out, Cashman could easily fire him – something he could not do with Mattingly or Piniella.

Girardi survived 2008 when the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and had similar calls for his job as Boone does now and, after a half-a-billion-dollar spending spree on free agents Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees won another championship in 2009 with largely the same core that had won for Torre.

The Yankees maintained their level of annual championship contender through 2012 and then, as Cashman finally fully consolidated his power with the death of George Steinbrenner and the full Michael Corleone-style elimination of the Tampa faction, set about a pseudo-rebuild.

To his credit, Girardi kept the team competitive throughout the process and amid the retirements and retirement tours of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera; with the aging and declining Teixeira; with a patchwork of broken down and available veterans like Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner providing little-to-nothing; and trying to develop young players while keeping the team from falling to the depths of 90+ losses.

He coaxed a Wild Card berth with a team that was mediocre at best in 2015; he kept them above .500 for the duration. In 2017, the club made a wondrous jump that not even the front office saw coming and they came within one win of a pennant.

Then, with Girardi’s contract expired and the Yankees going full-bore into the analytics revolution, Girardi was discarded. Technically, he was not offered another contract; for all intents and purposes, he was fired.

The Self-Aware Puppet

To gain some perspective into the Yankees’ good fortune (they’d call it skill even if it isn’t) with their previous managers, the calm and cool Torre was the perfect antidote to the anal retentive and smothering Buck Showalter; Girardi checked off multiple boxes and the Yankees were beyond lucky that one candidate who might have gotten the job, Trey Hillman, took the Royals’ offer first and was a disaster on and off the field. Hillman couldn’t handle the media in Kansas City. Just imagine him in New York.

Unlike previous Yankees managerial searches, the legitimate candidates – Boone, Hensley Meulens, Rob Thomson, Carlos Beltran, Chris Woodward – to replace Girardi all had certain aspects in common: they were younger; they had no managerial experience; they would follow orders; and they would take short money for the opportunity.

Even the one veteran former manager they interviewed, Eric Wedge, had worked in an Indians organization that was run from the top-down. He was not a serious candidate for the job anyway.

All this fits into the new template for a big-league manager, one the Yankees willingly dove into.

Boone pulling Luis Severino too late; starting J.A. Happ in Game 1 of the ALDS; playing Neil Walker instead of Miguel Andujar; putting Brett Gardner in left field instead of Andrew McCutchen; using Lance Lynn instead of one of the big-name relievers David Robertson, Dellin Betances or Zach Britton; letting Gary Sanchez repeatedly get away with overt laziness and rancid defense – none of that matters.

The key question to ask about Boone is not whether he did a “good” job or not.

The key question to ask is if he did the job he was hired to do and the answer is an unequivocal yes.

And that’s what Cashman wanted.

Whereas the front office was forced to deal with managers who had the contract status and the resumes to take or leave front office entreaties, as the power and sway of the manager diminished and the men hired to do the job were disposable and pliable, those entreaties slowly morphed into edicts. No longer does a front office ask a manager to do certain things and hope he does it. They tell him what to do and masquerade it as collaboration. There’s no “buy-in” necessary for the manager because if he doesn’t buy in, he doesn’t get or keep the job.

Boone was hired to consult with the front office and adhere to the pregame blueprint as it was laid out without deviating from that. The decisions Boone made – good or bad – were made before the game started. Having never managed before, he has no feel for the rapid-fire strategies that are viewed as sowing the seeds for the Yankees’ ALDS downfall and loss to the Red Sox because he is not paid to have a feel.

When Cashman does eulogize the season, he’ll utter the familiar platitudes as to the job his hand-picked and remote controlled manager did.

Media critiques and fan anger will not change a thing. Cashman will not have an epiphany and see the “error” of his ways, turning around and hiring a manager who is the exact opposite of Boone just because their plan did not yield the ultimately desired result of a championship.

The reasons Boone was hired have not changed, therefore the manager will not change either.