Shortly after taking over last month as general manager of the New York Mets – an organization felled over the last two seasons by a laughably endless confluence of mismanagement, misfortune, and missing-in-actions – Brodie Van Wagenen offered a bullish appraisal of his team’s chances for the coming season.
“I think we can win in 2019,” he told Steve Serby of the New York Post.
Last year, the Mets finished in fourth place in the National League East – a division in the midst of a renaissance – with a record of 77-85 and a mere .441 winning percentage over the final five months of the season following a surprisingly good April. They were even worse the year before. To some, Van Wagenen’s proclamation strained credulity.
So, in his attempt to fulfill that prophecy and bridge the gap between the reality of the team he inherited – lacking, certainly, but with a potentially elite rotation and some promising youngsters up and down the lineup – and the prosperity he envisions, Van Wagenen leaned into one of the philosophical tenets he identified when he was introduced in November: “You can’t be afraid to fail.”
Fittingly, then, for his first major move as the Mets’ baseball operations quarterback, Van Wagenen pulled off a dizzying blockbuster trade with the Seattle Mariners, acquiring All-Star reliever Edwin Diaz and All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano for 2018 first-round pick Jarred Kelenic, right-handed pitching prospects Justin Dunn and Gerson Bautista, as well as veteran outfielder Jay Bruce and reliever Anthony Swarzak – a doozy of a deal that could reasonably be characterized as shrewd, shortsighted, or straight-up reckless.
The careers of Kelenic and Dunn may dictate which descriptor is ultimately most apt. So, too, however, could a stretch of sustained success in Queens, where Diaz and Cano will help right a wayward team that earned a National League pennant in 2015, a wild-card berth in 2016, and seemed poised to be relevant, at least, so long as the likes of Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard were still around.
To that end, it’s undeniable that the Mets are better today than they were last week. Diaz is unquestionably a top-five reliever – under team control for another four seasons, too – who earned down-ballot American League Cy Young votes in 2018 after crafting a 1.96 ERA (1.61 FIP) and 0.79 WHIP over 73 games while leading the majors with 57 saves. He can singlehandedly rejuvenate a bullpen that finished in the bottom three in the NL in park-adjusted ERA (131 ERA-), park-adjusted FIP (115 FIP-), WHIP (1.41), shutdowns (127), and meltdowns (97).
Cano, who turned 36 in October, can still play, too, as he put up 2.9 WAR in just 80 games last year and hit .317/.363/.497 after returning in August from his 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use. He’ll presumably slide in at second base – casting Jeff McNeil into positional preparatory – and beef up a lineup that was decidedly mediocre in 2018.
Better, however, doesn’t necessarily mean good enough to close the gap separating the Mets from the Atlanta Braves, the reigning division champion and a burgeoning juggernaut, and/or the Philadelphia Phillies, who made strides in 2018 and are poised to spend big this winter, and/or the Washington Nationals, who are positioned to prove – even without Bryce Harper – that last year’s failures aren’t predictive. More moves are necessary to make the Mets a legitimate contender, and that’s why, cynically, Van Wagenen used mostly prospect capital rather than cash as a down payment for his revitalization project.
Similar improvements could have been made, after all, by simply signing free agents, but in this new era of shameless frugality, baseball ops executives can’t endear themselves to ownership by spending their money improvidently, especially following an 85-loss campaign. Instead of embracing short-term financial risk, in other words, Van Wagenen absorbed the long-term risk of becoming “The Goober Who Traded Away Jarred Kelenic” to improve his team right now without increasing payroll. After all, the Mets’ financial outlook for 2019 is slightly improved now thanks to both shedding the $22.5 million owed to Bruce and Swarzak next season and receiving the reported $20 million that Seattle will chip in to defray the $120 million Cano is set to earn over the next five years.
Now, the Wilpon family’s famous thriftiness notwithstanding, the Mets appear to have enough financial wiggle room to address the paucity of reliable arms in the bullpen and the gaping hole behind the plate, the status of Travis d’Arnaud’s elbow be damned. And they aren’t in this position – on the precipice of being good, with money to play with – if Van Wagenen plays it conservatively. Or sensibly. Again, the jury will remain out for a while.
The same goes for Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, who effectively dumped Cano’s salary – a top priority in his ongoing “reimagining” of Seattle’s roster – but also compromised his potential return for Diaz, an elite trade asset given his ability and the fact he won’t even be arbitration-eligible for the first time until next year. Back in 2016, after all, the New York Yankees received Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield – better prospects, in concert, than Kelenic and Dunn – from the Cleveland Indians for two-and-a-half-years of Andrew Miller’s services at $9 million per season.
But while it doesn’t seem particularly sound, trying to trim payroll and acquire prospect capital in the same transaction – his desperation to liquidate Cano seemed excessive, frankly, given the Mariners’ financial outlook beyond 2019 – Dipoto gets the last laugh should Kelenic, Dunn, and that reinvested money comprise the foundation of the club’s next competitive core.
In the meantime, Diaz and Cano will try to make Van Wagenen’s fearlessness look righteous rather than reckless. It won’t be easy. Nothing ever comes easy for the Mets. At the very least, though, they now have a general manager willing to make unexpected, unpopular, and potentially discrediting moves in order to wrest them from their recent doldrums.
That’s something. Maybe it’ll even work.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.