Embattled Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen discussed his team’s dire straits today with the media. Deesha Thosar of the New York Daily News and Mike Puma of the New York Post were among those to round up the choicest quotes. MLB.com’s Christina De Nicola approached it from a bit of a different perspective, focusing on the forward-looking aspects of Van Wagenen’s chat.
With the Mets all but buried in the standings, Van Wagenen faced the music on his “come get us” pre-season bravado with respect to the rest of the NL East contenders. As he put it today, “they came and got us.”
That may put a satisfactory wrap on a memorable quote, though it also glosses over some of the actual causes of the Mets’ failings by suggesting their rivals simply got the better of them. Van Wagenen’s claim that the club was the favorite in the division wasn’t just an attention-grabbing statement worthy of skepticism; it also seemingly represented a key driving factor for the team’s decisionmaking over his first offseason at the helm.
Van Wagenen did accept blame for how things have gone, though he did so in a curious manner, deflecting even as he absorbed culpability. “I wouldn’t want to put the blame on players or coaches or scouts or anybody of that matter,” he said, “but I can tell you that this team we built was one of unified vision and it hasn’t worked, so I accept my responsibility in that capacity as well.” Likewise, he seemingly minimized the role of big-picture roster-building when he cited a failure to “do enough of the little things right as a team.”
At the end of the day, the top roster-building decisionmakers have to own their missteps. There are quite often intervening factors that do help explain unanticipated struggles, to be sure. But it’s hard to argue that unforeseeable or simply unlucky happenings have really driven the disaster in Queens this season — Jed Lowrie aside, at least. (The oft-injured veteran has yet to play. He is now said to be dealing with a calf injury, with no apparent target for a return.)
The single major blunder, to this point, has been Van Wagenen’s signature trade — the swap that brought in ace closer Edwin Diaz and highly compensated veteran Robinson Cano. It seemed a highly questionable decision at the time, albeit one that would almost certainly deliver short-term rewards. Instead, both players have struggled mightily, and rather unexpectedly, even as the key prospects sent in the trade have prospered.
“You have to look at where we were and where we are now,” Van Wagenen said when asked whether he has had second thoughts on the deal. He noted that Diaz and Cano still have the remainder of the season to “change the narrative.”
Once again, this explanation seems to miss the mark. The real problem isn’t (just) the ensuing struggles of those players. It’s the series of conceptual failings that led to the deal in the first place. First, the deal was rough for the Mets from a value standpoint, given the huge amount of Cano’s contract the team absorbed. Even assuming that away, it was legitimately questionable whether the Mets had a strong enough roster to justify that kind of outlay for such clearly win-now players (a closer and an aging second baseman). Beyond all that, there were quite possibly better ways to utilize the team’s resources — a dedicated pursuit of Manny Machado, increased offer to Yasmani Grandal, etc. — even in a scenario in which the team pushed for contention.
The point here isn’t to lay on the blame. Van Wagenen had a distinctly difficult task as an agent-turned-GM who was trying (with limited resources) to turn around a roster that had struggled in the prior season. That was the strategic direction of ownership — even if the new GM pitched it in his interviews. And it wasn’t a ridiculous thing to attempt. It’s just that the undertaking came with obvious risks, especially in the manner it was pursued, and several of the downside scenarios have come to fruition — none moreso than the big-picture one, in which the Mets are left yet again facing a need to pursue some amount of rebuilding or reloading while also carrying a series of player assets that hints towards near-term contention.
It was a tricky spot; it is now, all the more. Van Wagenen will need to adapt on the fly. So, where do the Mets go from here?
Most notably, Van Wagenen slammed on the brakes so far as expectations are concerned. In mid-June, Van Wagenen said that the Mets were “right where we wanted to be.” Now, about a month later? “In the second half of the year I think we have low expectations for what we can be,” he said bluntly. Rather than posturing as front-runners, says the GM, the Mets will fashion themselves as “underdogs” who’ll “try to prove some people wrong this year and certainly try to improve on it next year.” It’s a starkly different look from an executive who said before the season, upon his latest hot stove conquest: “This action, rather than our inaction, should demonstrate to the fans that we say what we do and we do what we say.”
Without any pretense to immediate contention, the Mets can turn to making the best of the roster they have compiled. “We have to face our reality, to some degree, about where we are in the standings,” said Van Wagenen. Rental players — Zack Wheeler, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas (who does have an option remaining) — seem clearly to be on the block. But the question remains whether the Mets will also “face reality” with respect to their broader organizational position, which is certainly a question that can’t be answered by Van Wagenen alone.
Van Wagenen says the Mets will be “open-minded, … thoughtful and measured” at the deadline, though that characterization obviously doesn’t offer much in the way of specific direction. He was clear that he does not “anticipate being in a situation where we’d have a total teardown rebuild.” He also says he “fully expect[s]” the team’s best veterans with future contract control “to be on our roster” past the trade deadline — though he didn’t rule out deals of star pitchers Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. The front office has been bombarded with phone calls of late, adds Van Wagenen. It’ll certainly be interesting to see whether any of those chats lead to creative scenarios in which it makes sense for the Mets to move some of their best and best-known players.
If there’s a definitive statement on the Mets’ near-term approach to be found in Van Wagenen’s words today, it probably resides in this passage:
“The reason why we put some chips on the table this year is because we felt like we had a core of starting pitchers from which we could build around. … Right now, as we look at the halfway point, we feel like we have a core going forward, just maybe a different core. … We have a core from which we can compete, and we’ll look at our moves with both win now or certainly win in 2020 [perspectives] and looking beyond that.”
You can probably read that to mean just about whatever you want it to, but it certainly sounds as if Van Wagenen sees a vision of the future. Perhaps it suggests the club’s ace hurlers are now open to be moved … or that they are part of the “different core.” If there’s a core in place, one might think that a big push for 2020 would yet make sense … yet Van Wagenen was careful to note that the team needs to be “looking beyond that” point in time.
Whatever the precise core concept — it presumably features Michael Conforto, Pete Alonso, and Jeff McNeil at a minimum — there’ll be an awfully tough path to navigate. Whether they pursue immediate contention or some manner of rebuilding, the Mets face a tricky financial situation in 2020, when they owe about $115MM to players (not including David Wright) even before accounting for raises to Syndergaard, Diaz, Conforto, Steven Matz, Seth Lugo, Brandon Nimmo, and a few others. For a team that hasn’t yet cracked $160MM in payroll to open a given season, it’ll be challenging to add enough to spur a turnaround. And with so much already on the books, no small part of it (Cano, Lowrie, Jeurys Familia, Yoenis Cespedes) largely immovable, it’ll also be tough to embark upon a dedicated rebuilding effort.