One reason Brodie Van Wagenen is now the ex-general manager of the New York Mets is how poorly he did in free agency. Jed Lowrie, Wilson Ramos, Dellin Betances, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha stand as an expensive punch line to the now defunct regime.
But one reason Van Wagenen gained the job was because of how dismally his predecessor did in free agency, especially going into the 2018 season — so badly that Sandy Alderson even admitted, “We signed, I don’t know, five, six free agents over the offseason. And really not one of them has performed up to their expectations or probably ours, either.”
Alderson said that in June 2018 as he was taking a leave of absence due to a recurrence of his cancer. Asked if he should be retained, Alderson conceded, “If I were to look at it on the merits, I’m not sure coming back is warranted.”
Alderson wasn’t brought back — until he was the first big hire of the Steve Cohen regime. And really, with all the grand plans expressed by both in their Tuesday introductory Zoom conference, much of the near future will evolve around Alderson and whomever he hires to run baseball operations picking players — namely free agents — better than the past two Mets GM, one of whom was Alderson.
As a GM with the three-time AL champion 1988-90 A’s and the 2011-18 Mets, Alderson was far better in procuring talent through the draft and trades than in free agency. In Oakland players such as Dave Henderson, Rickey Henderson, Carney Lansford, Dennis Eckersley, Dave Stewart and Bob Welch came to the championship A’s via one-sided trades favorable to Alderson; and Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach and Walt Weiss came from his drafts.
The Mets could have been a playoff team the past two years if Van Wagenen had done better augmenting around the core acquired (Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler) or drafted (Pete Alonso, Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeill, Brandon Nimmo, Dom Smith) during Alderson’s first term.
So perhaps the most vital quote in the near two hours that Cohen and his team president addressed reporters Tuesday was when Alderson said: “I don’t want to create the impression that we’re just going to go out and sign a bunch of players. But I think we now can emphasize the acquisition rather than the cost. Does that make sense?”
It does if Alderson were throwing shade at the Wilpons, if he were making subliminal reference that you can’t buy the best ingredients without the money to do so. Alderson’s final free-agent class was Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas, Anthony Swarzak, Jose Reyes and Adrian Gonzalez. The total guarantee was $88 million, or my guess about what it will cost to sign DJ LeMahieu by himself.
One of the allures Van Wagenen found in obtaining Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz from the Mariners in a trade that currently looks ill-fated is that he was able to dump the remainder of Bruce’s and Swarzak’s contracts as somewhat of a financial offset against Cano (it also cost two of Alderson’s first-round picks in Justin Dunn and Jarred Kelenic).
Perhaps nothing exemplified Alderson’s skills with the Mets like his dealings with Yoenis Cespedes. The trade for him in 2015 was a bonanza (and the smaller adds of Tyler Clippard, Addison Reed, Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe also helped the Mets to the NL title). The retention of Cespedes on a three-year contract with a one-year out was fine. The retaining of Cespedes for four years at $110 million a disaster.
The next time Alderson shopped he was in the Bruce, Frazier, Vargas aisles. Cohen clearly will allow the Mets to restock from the luxury areas. So Alderson and his baseball department will have to judge correctly about George Springer’s association with a sign-stealing scandal, J.T. Realmuto’s demanding workload as a catcher and whether an iconoclast such as Trevor Bauer will mix well with the Mets and New York.
But all the shopping is not done in the posh categories. The Mets have to improve their bullpen. If they, say, purchase Springer, it might mean focusing on a less expensive catcher and/or starting pitching.
Alderson and his handpicked lieutenants will get keys to be bold. Now the historically tough part — getting those choices right.
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