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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What sparked the last Mets spending spree? Can it happen again?

MLB, Uncategorized

Machado pic

As the Mets’ skid continues and they prepare for an unexpectedly critical three-game series against the crosstown Yankees that, without hyperbole, can make or break the entire season, there is an ongoing and potentially franchise-altering debate as to the club’s direction.

Most observers have established positions on one extreme or the other. One side advocates for a complete and total rebuild trading any valuable assets to reload for the future. The other wants the team to spend-spend-spend to add free agents and go all-in.

Already, general manager Sandy Alderson has downplayed the idea of a teardown like the ones that succeeded for the Astros and Cubs with the somewhat justified assertion that they do not always work and the circumstances must be such that no other strategy makes sense. For the Mets to endure the short-term pain of trading away Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and anyone else of value, they need to accept that there is no potential avenue of success should they retain them.

It’s a tough sell to tell the fans that the team will lose 90+ games for the foreseeable future as youngsters in Single and Double-A develop and the club is relying on the vagaries of the draft, especially if they might pull the trigger on such a blueprint and then find themselves either making mistaken evaluations or ending up right back in the middle which is where they are right now.

Neither the Astros nor the Cubs are solely constituted of homegrown talent or players who were acquired in those gutting trades. What those teams had in common was that their farm systems were largely destitute when they embarked on those extreme reconstructions and they were losing 90 to 100 games anyway. The Mets are not in that position…yet. Once the Astros and Cubs had developed a solid core around which to build, they started spending big money.

With deGrom, Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo and Amed Rosario in place and under team control, the Mets already have that core. A full gutting does not make sense.

The question with the Mets – and the Wilpons – is whether they will do what needs to be done to bolster that group with big-name talent not to fill in, but to take the pressure off those youngsters that they do not need to immediately vault into superstardom.

Mets history has been one in which cycles of contention were followed by extended lulls where it was obvious what was coming and the organization failed to act before bottoming out. Instead, they responded by forcing mismatched pieces into the structure and created an eyesore in the aesthetic and practical sense. The breakdown of the mid-to-late-1980s annual World Series favorite gave way to the Vince Coleman and Bobby Bonilla years; the late 1990s contenders devolved into the botched attempts to implement Moneyball strategies without actually understanding it by signing Karim Garcia and Shane Spencer instead of Vladimir Guerrero and sticking Jason Phillips at first base; the 2006-2008 teams that barely missed winning that elusive title and became the case study for dysfunction and collapse were undone by faulty patchwork and financial nightmare.

The 2006-2008 teams were only contenders because of what happened from 2002-2004.

The 2004 Mets had degenerated into a mess with their misplaced attempts at aggression and a lack of the necessary competence and “final say” authority in the baseball operations. This led to trading their best prospect, Scott Kazmir, for an injured journeyman Victor Zambrano, in a flawed attempt to make a playoff run when they were below .500, 7 games out of first place, and 7.5 games behind the Wild Card leader at the trade deadline.

There was no one to say, “No.” There was no plan. There was a committee with different fiefdoms trying to maintain their position and ingratiate themselves to a meddling ownership. The results were plain to see.

Once Zambrano got hurt and the club staggered to the finish line – again – ownership acted by hiring Omar Minaya to head up its baseball operations. Minaya was a member of the Mets “family” having worked in the organization during its previous heyday and sold the Wilpons on the need not just to be aggressive in pursuing upgrades, but to go for the crème de la crème of free agents.

Yes, they overpaid to get Pedro Martinez and, on the field, they didn’t get what they paid for by a longshot. Off the field, the Martinez signing was a bullhorn to other players and agents that the Mets were no longer messing around, satisfied with making an offer and coming in second as if that was somehow a noteworthy accomplishment.

The “at least they tried” template that was in place in 2004 is in place in 2018 and the results are looking eerily similar.

It was that humiliation and concession that their trades, bargain signings and faux attempts to be forward-thinking failed that served as the catalyst not just to hiring someone like Minaya who was under no illusions about how to get the team back into contention, but was willing to take the necessary steps to get it done and – most importantly – convinced ownership that it needed to be done.

That club had a young foundation around which to build with David Wright and Jose Reyes, both 22, that was not as deep as the one they have now.

Much has been made of the Mets having a relatively large payroll – perhaps not for the New York market, but large nonetheless – of around $157 million; that they spent money in the offseason to try and fill their holes by singing Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas and Anthony Swarzak; that they hired a new-age manager suited for today’s game in Mickey Callaway. But, like 2004, it’s all going wrong.

Any assertion that the Mets must go all-in for a Manny Machado or any other name free agent and try to win immediately with deGrom, Syndergaard, Conforto, Rosario, et, al. and shun the half-measures the club has become infamous for is predicated on the realization that hoping for a best-case scenario with no margin for error is not enough. If the Bernie Madoff-induced financial problems are truly in the rearview mirror as the Wilpons and Major League Baseball continue to attest, then there’s no viable explanation not to pry open the vault and spend some cash on legit players. Alderson is signed through 2019 and despite repeated accusations of him being cheap, he was perfectly willing to spend on players when the money was available to him during his days as the GM of the Athletics in their late-1980s-early 1990s dominance that overlapped with that of the Mets.

The only question is whether the club has reached the level of frustration and acceptance that they did in 2004 to force them to act.