Brodie Van Wagenen was preacher and motivational speaker in introductory remarks Tuesday during the press conference to welcome Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to the Mets.
The new Mets GM sermonized about being “relentless and fearless in our pursuit of greatness.” He talked about believing in the possible, that nothing was impossible. He, by name, thanked every Mets employee short of the clubhouse guy who put the “2” and the “4” on Cano’s new uniform for their assistance in completing this complicated trade with the Mariners. He called Cano among the great second basemen in the game and Diaz the best current closer.
And there was this from the written pages that Van Wagenen glanced at occasionally: “This should be a signal to our players and our fans that words alone will not define this franchise.”
Except, like every part of this presentation, I don’t think the main target audience was Mets players or fans. It was ownership — Jeff Wilpon sitting on the dais with Van Wagenen, Fred Wilpon in the first row looking upon his newest employees.
From his days as an agent, Van Wagenen knows Mets ownership is susceptible to a passionate narrative. He recognizes the Wilpons want to be taken seriously, decrease the fan animosity and win. He also knows they have promised “words” of financial and transactional aggression before only to retreat, scared by a bad result or sticker shock or negative industry, media and fan reaction.
Van Wagenen is trying to steel the Wilpons to keep going, to be bold, to not accept as unamendable fact that the Yankees and other large-market teams are the destination for the best in the game. Sandy Alderson’s initial job was to put as positive a face as possible on payroll slashing and serial losing during the Madoff debacle. Van Wagenen has made Job 1 convincing ownership to stop acting like these are the Kansas City Mets.
We will all learn with time if Van Wagenen is carnival barker or baseball savant, but at present he is resonating with an ownership mesmerized by his energy and positivity. Jeff Wilpon shares a similar age and Connecticut living experience with Van Wagenen, and their relationship feels more like a partnership than any previous Wilpon/GM relationship. Perhaps it is the honeymoon phase, but Van Wagenen sold a trade to ownership that was largely unpopular with fans and the industry.
Think about the sales job here a bit and what it might mean moving forward:
1. Van Wagenen got the Mets to obtain Cano, who was suspended 80 games for failing an MLB drug test. Van Wagenen was one of his agents at that point and believes he knows why Cano tested positive for a diuretic banned because it is often used as a masking agent. He sold it enough that Jeff Wilpon said: “I don’t think [Cano’s] a drug cheat. I could be proven wrong, but I don’t think he’s a drug cheat.”
2. At a time when prospects have never been valued more, Van Wagenen moved ownership to agree to give up two of the Mets’ best (Justin Dunn and Jarred Kelenic). It should be remembered Van Wagenen, while at CAA, was involved in recruiting top amateurs and had plenty of players in the minors (Dunn is a CAA client). He knows what the miss rate is on even the best prospects.
Kelenic is generally well-regarded by talent evaluators. But he is 19. Like Brandon Nimmo (Wyoming), Kelenic is from a cold-weather state (Wisconsin) and, thus, has not played as extensively as many top prospects and could need more extended minor league seasoning. Plus, you can find amateur scouts who worried that Kelenic is a bit of workout warrior — that he looks great in showcase situations, but there is at least some concerns about adaptability to higher professional levels.
Still, Kelenic was a valuable trade commodity within the industry with a potential high ceiling, and Van Wagenen persuaded ownership to trade him. Which means he is unafraid to repeat the same to get his hands on proven talent (J.T. Realmuto? Corey Kluber?).
3. Even with Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak off the books and Seattle sending $20 million to complete the trade, the Mets are adding $63 million in future dollars for Cano. And though they will pray he actually earns it because it would mean he is excelling, Diaz could exceed $30 million over the next four years. The Mets, before adding Cano, had no guaranteed dollars for the 2021 season.
But that might not be true for much longer. The interest is there to extend Jacob deGrom, and Van Wagenen has the Mets dabbling at high level of free agency with setup men and A.J. Pollock, among others. Plus, the willingness here was to take on a distressed contract (Cano) to land a desirable piece (Diaz). Cleveland and Miami are among the teams that have distressed contracts they would like to excise. Would they attach a star to them?
Also, remember that at recent trade deadlines the Mets talked about eating money to facilitate better returns, then made the trade that saved the most dollars.
4. In the past, the Wilpons have tended to make the payroll a moving target, with the GM essentially shopping for one item at a time, either getting approval or not and then moving to the next agenda piece. Like the better front offices, Van Wagenen has the Mets not just in the expensive (in price of dollars and prospects) shopping aisles, but diverse ones. Will the new GM be able to multitask a cohesive, contending roster? We’ll see, but he has ownership willing to consider varied possibilities concurrently rather than one at a time.
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