At the end of last season, the Mets were in a peculiar position. They were coming off of back to back losing seasons, yet still had many pieces present from the team that went to the 2015 World Series. Still, it looked as their window was closed, and with a very talented starting rotation headlined by Jacob deGrom, they were primed to add plenty of intriguing young talent to help them rebuild their roster with blockbuster trades. It seemed easy to do, but in general manager’s Brodie Van Wagenen’s first offseason, New York set themselves so far back in a silly attempt to contend for the playoffs, that the effects could tremendously hinder the franchise. Van Wagenen established a motto that the team would win now and in the future, but instead, it’s likely they won’t be doing either.
After general manager Sandy Alderson stepped down due to health concerns, the Mets needed to hire a new general manager. There were several intriguing candidates for the job, including Rays vice president of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom, yet they settled on Van Wagenen. Bloom has been a key part in the Rays’ path to being one of the top teams in baseball despite a $60 million payroll and is well regarded as one of the game’s top modern thinkers. Van Wagenen, meanwhile, was an agent who was the first general manager ever hired without any front office experience. Whereas Bloom, a more progressive decision maker, had an impressive track record of finding terrific value with players in Tampa Bay, Van Wagenen was likely more willing to go all-in on the “big names”, which is likely what owner Fred Wilpon and COO Jeff Wilpon likely preferred given their insistence on trying to win in 2019. As mentioned previously, trying to contend was always going to be the wrong decision for a team without the resources to make the moves desperate to compete, so Van Wagenen had to get creative in some of his decisions. Unfortunately, almost all of them failed.
Van Wagenen’s first and worst decision was to acquire second baseman Robinson Cano and closing pitcher Edwin Diaz from the Mariners in exchange for outfielder Jay Bruce, reliever Anthony Swarzack, top prospect Jared Kelenic, top pitching prospect Justin Dunn, and pitching prospect Gerson Bautista. Cano, as expected, has regressed with age, though no one would have predicted him to fall to an 82 wrc+ and a -0.1 WAR so quickly. Still, he was coming off a PED suspension and will be paid $100 million by the Mets over the next five seasons; acquiring him always made little sense and looks like a catastrophe now. The real reason of the trade was likely to add reliever Edwin Diaz, which makes this trade more ludicrous. Diaz was coming off a season in which he had a 1.61 FIP, but he had a 4.02 FIP a year before, while relievers are known to be volatile. His FIP has almost doubled now at 3.24, while he’s allowing fewer ground balls and an absurd 47.8% hard contact rate. With Kelenic’s stock soaring with a 204 wrc+ in Single-A and looking like the face of Seattle’s rebuild, Dunn coming into his own with a 3.05 FIP in Double-A, and Bautista already in the majors, this trade looks even worse. Essentially, New York dealt arguably it’s two most impactful prospects for an aging second baseman with several red flags and a reliever that needed to be dominant for the trade to make sense. This trade was horrible at the time and will always stay with Van Wagenen, no matter what he is able to accomplish.
The rest of Van Wagenen’s moves were also preposterous. He tried to completely make over the bullpen by not following the common notion that it’s never a good idea to invest in relievers by signing two inconsistent ones in Jeurys Familia (6.09 FIP) and Justin Wilson (5.95 FIP). It’s hard to peg why Wilson is struggling, but Familia saw his ground ball rates plummet last season and has always had control issues, and his walk rate (6.83) has now doubled. Rather than add depth to a thin bullpen, Van Wagenen decided to go for quality, and that decision, as expected, has backfired. Then, because having one aging second baseman wasn’t enough, he signed Jed Lowrie, who was coming off a solid season but had no clear place on this team. He’s been hurt the entire year and is making $10 million this year and next year, and had he stayed healthy, he would’ve stolen a spot from Jeff McNeil (138 wrc+); even if Lowrie performed well, the move would have still been a waste of resources. Furthermore, the acquisition of center fielder Keon Broxton (38 wrc+, -0.5 WAR) was putrid, catcher Wilson Ramos (2 years, $19 million) has regressed to an average 100 wrc+, and the decision to extend Jacob deGrom to a five year, $137.5 million extension when he still had two seasons left of club control before being a free agent at age 32 was never going to bring surplus value for them. In fact, with deGrom regressing to a 3.21 FIP, it can be argued that he won’t even prove to be worth the contract at all.
Van Wagenen can blame this season on the injury to outfielder Brandon Nimmo, he can use manager Mickey Callaway as the scapegoat and fire him, or he could tab this year as an “off year”. However, it seems as though the Mets continue to have excuses for their lack of winning when in reality, their vision is flawed. It’s obvious that a team won’t be able to handle injuries when there is little organization depth, and that older players are more prone to injuries. Yet, the team has made it common practice to add aging players and field a thin roster, and somehow hasn’t learned from their mistakes. After all, this is a team with an ownership group that is notorious for not being willing to spend like a big market team with a much tighter future budget, and a farm system that ranks just 23rd, according to Fangraphs. There is no clear direction with this team, and although Peter Alonso, McNeil, outfielders Michael Conforto and Nimmo are bright pieces, unless they change their thinking in a hurry and bring in more young talent (going into “sell mode” at the trade deadline would help), they’ll be stuck in this purgatory for a while. Ironically, this sounds very similar to what many were calling for them to do last summer; they seemed committed to being a prime example of mediocrity and have established themselves as the laughingstock of baseball.