PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — In baseball, as in so many other businesses, people hire who they know.
In the offseason, Derek Jeter’s Marlins appointed Jeff Livesey, the son of the former Yankees scouting boss who drafted Jeter, assistant hitting coach. Sandy Alderson went home, sort of, to the Oakland A’s, brought on as a senior adviser by his onetime mentee, Billy Beane. In reconstructing their international operations, the Mets deferred to Omar Minaya, who picked Rafael Perez and Luis Marquez, two men who had key roles in that department for Minaya’s Mets a decade ago.
It takes the right skills, of course, to do any of those jobs. But knowing the right people helps.
Now consider the Mets’ offseason changes — and the players on whom their 2019 success hinges — under agent-turned-GM Brodie Van Wagenen. He inherited a roster filled with players represented by CAA Sports, which he helped found in 2006 and ran until October, and added more to it.
From Jacob deGrom to Robinson Cano, Noah Syndergaard to Jed Lowrie, Yoenis Cespedes to Tim Tebow, the Friends of Brodie will heavily influence how the story of the 2019 Mets unfolds.
“I didn’t build the team with the intention of having players that I’m familiar with here,” Van Wagenen said. “I didn’t make decisions for our roster in a vacuum. We had a large, fairly significant group of people that weighed in on our decisions. It was a collaboration. Each player that we brought in was brought in because of their skill set and how they fit and complement our team, not necessarily because I knew their makeup or their family and children.”
Some of these players, such as deGrom and Syndergaard, were going to be on this roster no matter whom ownership picked as general manager. Their presence and peak performance are critical to team success.
But three CAA Mets stand out as the subjects of debate-worthy decisions by Van Wagenen’s front office. Cano, Lowrie and Jason Vargas weren’t mandatory pieces of an offseason master plan but now are significant cogs. One reason the Mets chose each of those players: Van Wagenen’s belief in and relationship with them.
Let’s look at Cano first. When he landed his 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners a half-decade ago, Van Wagenen was his agent. In his first major move as Mets GM, Van Wagenen made a trade with the Mariners for Cano — and, it should be noted, closer Edwin Diaz, who was at least as important as Cano in the deal.
Now Van Wagenen’s Mets owe the second baseman $100 million the next five seasons.
The Mets are betting that Cano, who is 36 and was suspended for half of last season under MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy, will remain good at an age when most baseball players aren’t. As Van Wagenen described it early in spring training, “There are parts of his skill set that we don’t think will ever go away.”
“Makeup and character factor into decisions. There’s also the baseball evaluation standpoint,” Van Wagenen said. “The fact that he’s able to [perform] at 35, 36, we believe that we believehe’ll be able to do it going forward, giving us greater confidence to have him here. The fact that I know his work ethic and commitment and his desire to define his legacy over the course of the next five years gives additional confidence of what he can be.”
Lowrie initially met Van Wagenen, his fellow Stanford baseball alumnus, in 2004 when he was preparing to go pro and interviewing potential advisers/ agents. Lowrie described Van Wagenen’s “shared experience” with Stanford as a bonus, not a requirement, during that process. He stuck with Van Wagenen for 14 pro seasons, 11 in the majors. Shortly after Van Wagenen switched to team employment, he signed Lowrie to a two-year, $20 million deal, adding him to what already looked like a crowded infield.
Lowrie will turn 35 in April, and his past two seasons have been his best. Van Wagenen believes he will be valuable on the field and in the clubhouse through his mid-30s, as Cano has been.
“Any time a player has 10 years in the big leagues, he’s doing a lot of things right,” Van Wagenen said. “The fact that I have watched him go through that evolution and have watched his work ethic, it gave me confidence that he was going to be the right fit for our team.”
Vargas, similarly, has a long history with Van Wagenen (though his primary agent is Nez Balelo, a co-head of CAA’s baseball department). They met in 2006, when Vargas was a young starter for the Marlins.
The club could have replaced Vargas, who was injured and wildly ineffective for most of 2018 but good toward the end of it, as its No. 5 starter. Vargas said he would have understood if the Mets had added another starting pitcher. They did not. Van Wagenen and manager Mickey Callaway declared during camp’s opening days that Vargas had a rotation spot.
Van Wagenen doesn’t know everyone, of course. When the Mets signed Wilson Ramos, brought back Jeurys Familia and traded for Keon Broxton, among other moves, he couldn’t rely on his firsthand knowledge of the individuals. The homework on the players’ character, work ethic and the like had to come from elsewhere, and the Mets did that just fine.
But the theme of the Mets’ offseason — Van Wagenen’s unusual career move and the changed relationships between him and his then-clients, now-employees — is going to be a theme of their season.
“This clubhouse was familiar to me before I took the job,” Van Wagenen said. “It certainly made the transition earlier, but I’ve gotten to know the other guys on the club and hopefully we’ll continue to build those relationships.”
86-76, 3rd in NL East
Their ceiling is high thanks to their rotation, but the Mets look like a mid-to-high-80s-win team that needs to catch some breaks — key players staying healthy and performing up to their abilities — to win what should be an extremely competitive division. A wild-card bid is well within the realm of possibility, but the NL East is going to be a fight among the Phillies, Nationals, Mets and Braves. That foursome could feasibly finish in any order. A key: Who best takes advantage of the Marlins?
This is Tim Healey’s second season covering the Mets for Newsday.