JUPITER, Fla. -- At the end of a week in baseball, and in his own division, dominated by news of the biggest and longest free-agent contract in baseball history, the one that Bryce Harper signed with the Phillies, Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen was still talking about big arms. He was the most intriguing off the field hire during this baseball offseason, primarily because his previous job was as an agent. And here is one of the first things he said when he got the part, just to let everybody know he was in town:
"We will win now. We will win in the future. We're going to develop a winning culture and a winning mindset, and we will deliver this city and this fan base a team they can be proud of.”
It was the great New York columnist Jimmy Breslin who once said that if you don’t blow your horn, there is no music. Everybody in the big city knew exactly what Van Wagenen was doing.
Now it is the first Sunday in March, three months after he got his new job. He is sitting in a box above Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium during Spring Training. And after he tells you that Harper going to Philadelphia is “good for baseball,” he gets ready to watch Zack Wheeler, a young guy who started to pitch like a star over the second half of last season, pitch against the Cardinals. At the same time, Van Wagenen is sticking to his story about taking his chances this season with Wheeler and Jacob deGrom, whom he calls “the best pitcher in baseball,” and Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz.
“You are only as good as the front end of your rotation,” Van Wagenen said.
Then he said this about the rotation that the Mets will take into the National League East fight with the Braves -- who won the division last season -- Phillies, Nationals and Marlins:
“We have the kind of arms other teams want.”
For one season, deGrom pitched like a young Tom Seaver, winning the NL Cy Young Award despite winning just 10 games, finishing with an ERA of 1.70. Syndergaard, despite injuries to the index finger on his pitching hand and even a bout with hand, foot and mouth disease, managed to make 25 starts and finish with a record of 13-4 and an impressive 3.03 ERA. Wheeler, who would get bounced around a bit by the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, made 29 starts and finished with a record of 12-7, and finally looked like the kid the Mets thought they were getting when they traded Carlos Beltran to the Giants for him in 2011, posting a 1.68 ERA in the second half. Even before Matz, a Long Island kid, gets the ball as the fourth starter, the top three guys give the Mets the most interesting rotation in what has suddenly become the most interesting division in the whole sport.
“There is no blueprint for how these things come together,” Van Wagenen says. "deGrom is a converted shortstop who had Tommy John [surgery] and really does become the best pitcher last year. Matz is a local kid the Mets drafted out of high school. Syndergaard comes in a trade. Wheeler comes in a trade.” He smiled and said, “Lots of ways to build a rotation. I like ours.”
But he knows his team has to hit, after stretches last season when you wondered if the 2018 Mets would ever get another hit or score another run. It is why Van Wagenen, in his first important move as the Mets' GM, took a big swing and did not just get Robinson Cano from the Mariners, but also their closer, Edwin Diaz. Even people in outer space know that Cano, once a brilliant player on the other side of New York City for the Yankees, missed half of last season because of a PED suspension. Van Wagenen knew that. He also knew that Cano, even at 36, might be the club’s best hitter if he can repeat what he did last year in 80 games, slashing .303/.374/.471.
Of course, no one knows if Yoenis Cespedes, who not long ago looked like the best hitter the Mets ever had, will even play this season after heel surgery. No one is sure where an exciting kid like Jeff McNeil, who came out of the Minors to hit .329 last season, will play. Likely he will play just about everywhere. Right now, the Mets' third baseman, Todd Frazier, is hurt. When I ask Van Wagenen if McNeil can play third, the new Mets GM says, “Oh, yes.”
If there is going to be a culture change with the Mets, who have had a couple of bad, dreary years, it must start with Van Wagenen, who watches a Sunday afternoon game in early March and takes notes on just about everything as if cramming for a final exam, occasionally whipping his head around and saying to former Mets manager Terry Collins, “What was the time on that stolen base?” The new GM of the Mets is smart enough to know what he is up against in a city where the Yankees always seem to suck up most of the available oxygen and attention, or he wouldn’t have gone after the job in the first place; smart enough to know he has a second-year manager in Mickey Callaway, one he did not hire, who will have to prove, and quickly, that he is not in over his head.
But Van Wagenen likes his team. He likes his chances, even in the shadow of Harper’s deal with the Phillies, even knowing what he is up against in his division, and in New York City. He is the former agent trying to be an agent of change at Citi Field.