JUPITER, Fla. — Bursting with bravado throughout the Mets’ eventful offseason, Brodie Van Wagenen was never shy about his expectations for and belief in his team, talking up the Mets’ chances in 2019 and beyond every chance he got.
“Internally, we would argue that we’re the favorites in the division right now,” Van Wagenen said in December.
“Our goal is to win a championship, and it starts with the division,” he said in January. “So come get us.”
But on Thursday, after Bryce Harper agreed to join the Phillies for 13 years and $330 million to complete a series of winter upgrades for the club, Van Wagenen seemed to take a semantic step back from his previous proclamations, albeit while expressing big-time confidence that the Mets will be contenders this season.
Van Wagenen declined to say, yes or no, whether he still views the Mets as the team to beat in the division.
“I mean, look, we were prepared that all the teams in this division were going to get better and this division was going to be competitive from pitch one of the season,” Van Wagenen said after the Mets’ 3-2 exhibition win over the Cardinals. “And we built this team to try to win out of the gate and win as many games as we can. I expect to be standing at the end.
“I believe that we can beat any team any time, and no player signing is going to change that mindset.”
Any given day, sure. But over the course of 162 games in six months (never mind the playoffs), are the Mets the best team in the division?
“I think I’ve already answered that,” he said.
Whatever Van Wagenen’s feelings, Harper’s decision to stay in the NL East after seven years with the Nationals further complicates the Mets’ path to a division title.
The Mets just want to worry about themselves, though.
“It’s a tough division. It was tough before he was coming back and it’s going to be tougher now,” said Michael Conforto, who, like Harper, is represented by Scott Boras. “I feel like we stack up great. I think our lineup’s long. Our starting pitching is great as it’s been in the past. I think we bolstered the bullpen and we play great defense. We have the potential to compete. We just got to do the right things.”
Said manager Mickey Callaway: “We’re worried about the guys we have in our clubhouse. That’s been our approach all offseason. We’re worried about what we feel is going to put the best team out there, and we feel like we accomplished that. I couldn’t be more thrilled with what we have in that clubhouse.”
The Mets were never seriously in on Harper nor infielder Manny Machado nor any other high-end free agent. Asked in January why the Mets opted not to pursue Harper, Van Wagenen and chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon cited a crowded outfield and Yoenis Cespedes’ salary ($29 million in 2019).
“I don’t know how many teams have two $30-million players,” Wilpon said. “I think that’s a bit of the answer. We went into this offseason, Brodie knows exactly where the target is for the payroll.”
Harper will make $25.38 million per year on average. The Phillies have two players, including pitcher Jake Arrieta, around that level.
Throughout Harper’s long free agency, Philadelphia was considered a threat, if not the outright favorite. Phillies owner John Middleton said in November that the team might “be a little bit stupid” with its money this offseason, a critical one as the team transitions from rebuilding to rebuilt.
While they waited for a decision from Harper, the Phillies made several other upgrades: trading for All-Star shortstop Jean Segura and dumping first baseman Carlos Santana, which allows Rhys Hoskins to move back to first; signing rightfielder Andrew McCutchen and late-inning reliever David Robertson, and dealing for J.T. Realmuto, perhaps the best catcher in baseball.
On paper, the NL East looks like a legitimate four-way fight: the souped-up Phillies, the defending champion Braves, the Harper-less Nationals and Van Wagenen’s Mets.
“We’re excited to have a competitive division,” Conforto said. “That’s not the case in every division in this league. It’s going to be a lot of fun this year to go out there and compete every single day.”
The 10 largest contracts in baseball history:
Player, Team Length Year Signed
$330M Bryce Harper, Phillies 13 years 2019
$325M Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins 13 years 2016
$300M Manny Machado, Padres 10 years 2019
$275M Alex Rodriguez, Yankees 10 years 2008
$260M Nolan Arenado, Rockies 8 years 2019
$252M Alex Rodriguez, Rangers 10 years 2001
$248M Miguel Cabrera, Tigers 8 years 2016
$240M (tie) Robinson Cano, Mariners 10 years 2014
Albert Pujols, Angels 10 years 2012
$225M Joey Votto, Reds 10 years 2014
Source: Cot's Baseball Contracts
Breaking down Harper's contract:
No deferred money
Full no-trade provision
$20M signing bonus