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 Mets’ embarrassment could spark real and necessary change

MLB, Uncategorized

Ricco

The Mets’ 4-2 loss to the Braves Thursday could be viewed as “another day, another loss” in a season of promise that devolved into a disaster at stunning speed, even for them. But with each passing day, it grows clearer that the solution to repair what ails the club cannot come from inside the organization. For the duration of Sandy Alderson’s tenure as general manager, assistant GM John Ricco was rightfully viewed as his heir apparent. He preceded Alderson with the organization and his private sector resume largely mimics Alderson’s when Alderson was plucked from a law firm that was representing the Athletics and, with no baseball operations experience, was named the club’s GM. Ricco is also an attorney and worked in the MLB commissioner’s office before joining the Mets.

The transition would have been relatively seamless and moved forward whenever Alderson decided to leave had the Mets not disintegrated in consecutive years as they did in 2017-18.

Alderson has left the club, ostensibly to treat his recurrence of cancer. Seated next to Jeff Wilpon at the press conference to announce that news, Alderson himself essentially said that if it were up to him, he’d fire himself for the club’s downfall following their 2015-16 postseason appearances. So, Alderson is out and not returning. In his stead, they have a tri-head GM of Ricco, J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya. This is unworkable in the short and long term. With clubs looking to deal with the Mets not knowing whom they should call and how long it will take for them to reach a consensus, the team is in stasis. Since the Mets made their highest value targets – Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard – off-limits barring a loony offer, the changes they did make are cosmetic.

The biggest problem for the Mets has morphed from the appearance of disarray to actual disarray.

On the bright side, the Mets are somewhat lucky in that they’re getting an in the trenches view of how Ricco would function as the fulltime GM. That trial run as the club spokesman and potential final decision maker is not helping his case to be given the job. With every press conference in which he serves as the organizational front man, he goes from “the guy whose voice we never heard” to “the guy whose voice we hope to never hear again.” It’s irrelevant whether he’s been a competent and evenhanded voice behind the scenes. He lacks the infectious personality that will automatically make it seem like he at least has a plan and believes in it and can get others to follow him. It’s clinical. He sounds like a doctor telling a patient that tests reveal a sexually transmitted disease. That is not going to work, especially in New York and specifically with the Mets.

Part of the search for the new GM goes beyond any blueprint he or she presents in an interview. It must be a person who can be sold to the fan base and media simply by mentioning the name. Listing potential names is generally a waste of time and more of a function of market research than anything else. Hiring a person who seems to check all the boxes and serves to placate the fans and media is not enough of a reason. Mickey Callaway has proven that.

Alderson is being blamed for the roster construction and the perceived dilapidation of the organization in general, but Ricco and Ricciardi were present and had a significant amount of sway for the entire time Alderson was there. Minaya was the GM who oversaw the rise and fall of the Mets from 2005-10. Can any one of the three make a case that he is the one who should be entrusted to fix this?

This goes beyond picking a new GM who is salable to the fans and has a background and clearly delineated plan. Because they have already stated their intention to contend in 2019, a new GM who might have wanted to trade away deGrom, Syndergaard and any other player of value to boost the farm system, clear some salary and reboot has already been told before interviewing that there will not be a rebuild. Right there, it puts a potential GM at a disadvantage as he will be walking in with parameters and residue from past failures rather than a clean slate.

Wilpon is another issue. He trusted Alderson enough to leave him alone as much as Wilpon leaves any of his underlings alone, but he had two decades of experience in the game from about every perspective a front office person can have. He’d earned the benefit of the doubt. While Ricco is liked within the organization, the first instinct Wilpon will have is to tighten his grip, not loosen it. Add in Ricco’s poor showing thus far as the team spokesman and it cannot work.

The beneficial aspect to the Mets slide toward what will be close to 100 losses is the urgency to act and willingness to change. It will spark the necessary action of hiring a veteran baseball man with experience and flexibility to adapt. Working the owner is part of the job. With none of the three current baseball men running the club capable of doing it, it is vital they find someone from outside – someone to be the baseball CEO; someone who knows what the hell he’s doing.

Keep subsidizing the Mets’ lies and ineptitude and the lies and ineptitude will continue

MLB, MLB Trade Deadline, Uncategorized

snake oil.jpg

For the record, when typing the word “lies”, I initially typed “liens” which, when discussing the New York Mets, could also be accurate.

There’s an unfounded and borderline delusional expectation that one day a light switch will turn from off to on and the Mets will understand that random jumping from one philosophy to another, doing just enough to maintain fan loyalty that tomorrow will be different, and a series of moderate changes are no longer sufficient to build a consistently thriving organization whose location in New York City should yield a commensurate bottom to top structure with competent management and proper funding.

The Mets operate on occasional success and point to it as validation of their haphazard strategy. They won the pennant in 2015 and a Wild Card spot in 2016 – isn’t that enough for you?

They spent big from 2005 to 2010 and almost won the 2006 pennant and would have won the World Series had they reached it. If there was the extra Wild Card in 2007 and 2008 as there is now, the Mets would have made the playoffs in both years.

Aren’t you happy with that?

Would’ve, might’ve, should’ve. There’s a time when these words are applicable, but not as a blueprint.

Winning teams that consistently succeed do not operate that way. There are standards. There’s structure. There’s a real blueprint crafted by professionals who can explain why they’re doing what they’re doing and take steps to bring it to fruition.

There are teams like the Mets who are sort of trying and there are teams that are legitimately trying. They’re not saying they plan to make improvements, they make improvements! Now, it’s possible that those improvements will not result in the desired end of a championship, but it cannot be said that they only tried when it was convenient for them and they were selling fans on a mythical product that only occasionally works with the fans (customers) continuing to buy it out of brand loyalty.

Are the Mets as cruel and dismissive of their fans as the media narrative seeks to purvey?

No.

They did spend money in this past offseason and the idea that the Wilpon family does not want to win is preposterous. They’re not operating in the Jeffrey Loria vacuum of profit above all else with nothing – the law, league rules, good taste – getting in their way. There is, however, an aspect of doing just enough to keep the fans coming back and then knowing – not hoping, knowing – that there will be a large faction of customers who will keep purchasing the product no matter what.

Is there a defense for the Mets with the ongoing drama and rumors regarding a potential Jeurys Familia trade? Until said trade is completed, there’s no fair judgment of it.

Is there a defense for the Yoenis Cespedes drama? The Mets were reluctant to trade for Cespedes because of his mercurial reputation and that he was a pending free agent. The trade won the Mets a pennant. Cespedes wanted to stay with the Mets and the Mets were again reluctant amid concerns that once he was paid, he would settle into a lackadaisical “I’ll play when I feel like it” attitude. They re-signed him to a mutually beneficial contract where he could opt out after one year. In 2016, he was an All-Star, a top-10 finisher in the MVP race, and a Silver Slugger award winner. Then he opted out and the Mets, with pressure from the fans and media, re-signed him to a contract worth $110 million. In the year-and-a-half since then, they’ve gotten 110 games played and the constant fear that he will tweak, pull or tear a muscle or claim to have an injury that he could potentially play through just because he feels like taking some time off and is annoyed about something when no one knows what.

Now that he’s back on the active roster and played one game after missing two months, hitting a home run and being that mid-lineup threat, he says he has calcification on his heels and will need surgery to fix it. The recovery time is eight-to-ten months.

The Mets are being whipped for this information when, with Cespedes, there’s a sense that the medical diagnoses are being revealed as they come out of his mouth and the club was completely unaware of this new sequence of events until they heard it for the first time when Cespedes said it.

Are they at fault? Partially for having a strength and conditioning coach who allows Cespedes to bear squat half a ton; and partially for enabling him; but Cespedes is at fault as well and the Mets’ fears of giving him a long-term contract have largely come true.

Despite the objective truth that most of the big free agents who would have filled Mets holes and signed elsewhere have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst; that the players the Mets signed have inexplicably all been disastrous, the fundamental flaws in the Mets structure are the root of the problem.

The Yankees and Dodgers can absorb mistakes because they have the money to do so and the willingness to admit it and swallow it – something the Mets should have and obviously through financial limitation, conscious choice or both – do not. But there are other issues that the Mets face and are based on borderline incompetence. The Yankees and Dodgers have the farm systems to trade prospects for upgrades or to recall those players and have them contribute. The Mets do not and there’s no excuse for it. Having a healthy organization goes beyond money and the willingness to spend it on upgrades at the major-league level; it means having a system that, at minimum, has players who can play competently and the decision makers have the ability to accurately judge them or sell them to other clubs.

That does not happen in Queens.

The media is complicit in the narrative and it garners the desired reaction from already angry fans who need little prodding to respond like a Pavlovian dog. The Mets’ financial situation has been the catalyst for a vast proportion of the expectation that money above all else will be the determinative factor in how a trade like the one they are struggling to complete with Familia plays out. So, it’s easy to rile up the fans when one of the tri-headed GMs, John Ricco, says the Mets are willing to eat money on contracts to get a better return and then that story is flipped upside down as the Mets are negotiating that trade. Saying that they plan to spin terrible 2017 and 2018 seasons around quickly is one thing, taking the steps to do it is another.

Beat writers, insiders and columnists have been spending their time with ludicrous ideas of a Jacob deGrom or Noah Syndergaard trade to the Yankees when even they know it is not going to happen. They seem to get valid information just seconds before it is announced by the club and cannot be trusted any more than “FAKE TWITTER ACCOUNT X PURPORTING TO BE AN INSIDER”.

They too should be ignored.

The fans are the key. The ones who keep buying the product and then complaining about what they bought are making the basic error in how to get a better product: Stop buying it when it’s not good and wait until it is good.

Don’t buy tickets.

Don’t go to games even if the tickets are free.

Don’t buy memorabilia.

Don’t call sports talk radio discussing the team.

Don’t take part in any activity related to the team.

This is simple economics and business. If the entity would like to continue earning a profit and the customers are no longer buying what is being sold, the entity needs to change so the customer will again feel confident enough to spend money on it.

Until that happens, the Mets will keep going as they have with ownership dropping occasional crumbs dropped to loyal fans amid the belief that it will keep them quiet and buying for a few years. And the owners have been right. Once they’re wrong and the fans do not keep swallowing the storyline, subsidizing the lies and ineptitude, things will change. Not before then.

The Mets tri-headed interim GM and how it might go

MLB, Uncategorized

RicciardiRiccominaya

Sandy Alderson’s decision to step away from his role as New York Mets general manager has left the organization with a tri-headed replacement in the form of his assistants John Ricco, J.P. Ricciardi and Omar Minaya. With the organization in its familiar position of disarray tinged with predictable disappointment, the remainder of the 2018 season will be dedicated not just to assessing the product on the field, but in the front office as well.

Presumably, the Mets will have a more extensive search once the season is over.

There are a few things to remember here. First, the Wilpons are insular and do not like hiring outsiders. Alderson was an exception and they seemingly had not choice. He quickly became part of the Mets “family”.

Second, the organization is attentive if not outright vulnerable to fan anger, media entreaties and, most importantly, ticket sales.

Third, any executive who walks in thinking he or she will be the final say authority and operate without oversight from ownership will be hit in the gut with a figurative sledgehammer the first time an acceptable trade offer is made for a player the Wilpons don’t want to move and who they believe sells those tickets.

While the Wilpons are being criticized for the above issues as well as Jeff Wilpon’s statement interpreted as him asserting his power as having final say authority, it’s important to realize that he’s the owner and every operations head must answer to ownership. Bill Belichick, Theo Epstein, Billy Beane, Brian Cashman, Andrew Friedman, Jeff Luhnow, Gregg Popovich – all of them – must get approval before pulling the trigger. Some are accorded more leeway and freedom than others, but there’s no absolute power granted to what is, for all intents and purposes, a high-level employee who is still an employee.

This must all be factored in.

As for the three voices who will be running the Mets, there is an endless series of questions that need to be asked such as who do opposing teams call with a proposal? Who makes the assessments and how? Will there be a window for other executives to call GM 2 and GM 3 if GM 1 doesn’t give the answer they want? The foundation for paralysis is vast, but this is the Mets, so things might not be all that much different than they were before apart from Alderson not being there to willingly bear the brunt of that dysfunction.

John Ricco began his baseball career with the commissioner’s office and joined the Mets in 2004. His career trajectory somewhat mimics Alderson’s in that he was an outsider who came into baseball and to the Mets almost by accident. He has familiarity with the numbers and the intelligence to understand and deploy them without reverting to them as a crutch. There’s no ego where he’ll ensure that everyone is aware that he’s in charge and garner credit even for that which was lucky or was someone else’s idea.

In the negative sense, when teams make a change from one boss to another, the succession of number two to number one often fails. Perhaps Ricco is too similar to Alderson in temperament and personality to be the change the club needs.

If the Mets do not hire an outsider, Ricco is the heir apparent but will be more of a front man and calming voice to assess the situation and make a rational decision. He’s well-spoken and has the lawyerly skills to say something without saying anything and that, more than most other attributes, is how the GM job is done today.

J.P. Ricciardi was a minor-league player for the Mets and his relationship with Beane extended to working in the Oakland A’s front office before he was plucked from his role as a middling executive to become the GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. His time with the Blue Jays was tumultuous not for deals he made or didn’t make, but for his complete lack of a filter when speaking to the media, fans and even the players. He had public disagreements with Roy Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Adam Dunn and Shea Hillenbrand to name a few. To his credit, when he’s asked a question, he’s giving an answer and it’s certainly not in the GM double-speak that is designed to say absolutely nothing. For someone listed at 5’8”, he’s fearless. It’s easy to envision him getting into a traffic dispute with someone the size of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, shoving him and saying, “Hey man, you wanna go? Let’s go!!!” Of course, he’d get killed. And that’s the problem.

His “say whatever comes to mind” style and pugnacious nature as baseball boss didn’t work in Toronto and it’s not going to work in New York.

Omar Minaya does not seem to want to be a GM again. When he was rehired to be an assistant to Alderson in spring training – supposedly by Fred Wilpon himself – there was an over-the-top reaction as if the Mets were usurping and undermining the baseball operations staff with an unwanted interloper. That might have been true if Minaya was that type of person who is interested in himself and triangulating his position to gain power any way he can get it.

He’s not that guy.

Minaya is a very nice man with a keen scouting eye. He loves the Mets organization and has been loyal to the Wilpons for years. His time as GM from late 2004 through 2010 was notable for the rapid rebuild from laughingstock to a club on the verge of a World Series win two years later. Then, his short-term strategies of buying stars degenerated into desperation to patch together a deteriorating foundation. Some of the trades he made – for Carlos Delgado, Duaner Sanchez and John Maine – were outright heists. Like a European football (soccer) manager, he buys stars.

Ironically, Minaya’s best Mets teams were ahead of their time in having a lineup filled with guys who hit the ball out of the park; a strong defense; a mediocre starting rotation; and a deep and diverse bullpen. This is how most top-level clubs are built today. Because he falls into the category of old-school and doesn’t have reams of stats detailing why he’s making the moves he does and is not a relentless self-promoter, he does not get the credit for building a team that the stat guys would admire and laud had it been built by one of “them” because he’s decidedly not one of them. Therefore, it lacks the purity they seek in a sabermetrically-constructed club.

Regardless of where the Mets go after the season, there are major issues to addressed in the short term. While Alderson would most certainly have had the nerve to trade Jacob deGrom and/or Noah Syndergaard if it got to that point, the Wilpons okayed it and a deal too good to refuse was on the table, the current structure makes it implausible that such deals will take place. The same holds true for potentially valuable disappointments Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith. No giant housecleaning deals will be made in-season and they’re not gutting the club down to its exoskeleton after the season. Expect pending free agents Jeurys Familia, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jerry Blevins to be on the move. Apart from that, this season will be dedicated to looking at their young players, making judgments, deciding who stays and who goes and leaving it to the next GM whether that’s someone who’s with the organization now or not.