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Mets experts at picking future execs but not keeping them

In search of the Mets' new baseball operations boss, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon made one thing clear during his most recent public appearance: Nobody within the organization is being considered for the job.

New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon looks on

New York Mets COO Jeff Wilpon looks on during a press conference after a baseball game at Citi Field against the Miami Marlins on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

In search of the Mets’ new baseball operations boss, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon made one thing clear during his most recent public appearance: Nobody within the organization is being considered for the job.

Not John Ricco, the club’s longtime assistant general manager. Not Omar Minaya, the former GM who returned last winter as a special assistant. And not J.P. Ricciardi, another special assistant for the better part of a decade who used to run the Blue Jays.

What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if, much as the Mets have done well in grooming prospects on the field, they also had them in the front office?

For the past decade-plus, the Mets have developed the foundation for such a pipeline, thanks largely to a strong internship program led in part by Ricco. But when it comes to keeping that homegrown talent at home, the Mets haven’t been nearly as successful. Instead of using it as a feeder system for their own front office, the Mets largely have not retained many of the top young executives who came from their own ranks — including Milwaukee GM David Stearns, 33, who is in the spotlight this month as the rebuilt Brewers play in the NLCS in year three under his leadership.

As the Mets seek a new GM — and are turned down by some of the more highly regarded would-be candidates — it’s a phenomenon worth examining.

Stearns, a Manhattan native and a Mets fan as a kid, is the most prominent example. Three years after he changed half of the Brewers’ 40-man roster in his first offseason, Milwaukee finished with the best record in the National League. A decade ago, Stearns was a Mets intern — and clearly going places.

At the end of Stearns’ internship, the baseball operations department, at the time headed by Minaya, badly wanted to hire him as a permanent employee, sources familiar with the dynamic said. But they couldn’t get the additional full-time position approved by Fred and Jeff Wilpon.

Instead, Stearns ascended rapidly elsewhere. In a span of about seven years, he joined the Office of the Commissioner, then the Indians, then the Astros as assistant GM before Milwaukee took a chance on him at the end of the 2015 season.

It’s a similar story — bright, in-house youngster sought by the front office, which was held back by what amounted to budget constraints — for many of the other onetime Mets interns who are climbing various proverbial ladders.

Jonathan Strangio, the Angels’ assistant GM, worked for the Mets in 2010-11.

Last year, Stearns brought Mike Groopman, a 2007 Mets intern, on board as the Brewers’ director of international scouting.

Scott Freedman (also 2007) and Andy Galdi (2009) work for the Phillies as director of baseball operations and director of baseball research and development, respectively. The Royals have Mike Cifuentes (2011) as director of pro scouting and Guy Stevens (2012) as director of baseball administration/quantitative analysis.

Logan MacPhail (2009-10) wound up in another sport, working as the Brooklyn Nets’ director of coaching analytics. Armando Velasco (2013) is director of minor-league operations for the Astros, one of Stearns’ old teams.

Former Mets exec Adam Fisher, who along with Ricco did a lot of the intern hiring and overseeing, himself became a victim of this trend. An intern in 2003, Fisher rose through the ranks to senior director of baseball operations, but — seemingly blocked from further advancement — left to become a Braves assistant GM in September 2017. (The Braves let Fisher go two months later after significant leadership turnover there.)

“We’re extremely proud of the talent we’ve developed over the years, the young and now not-so-young talent that has spread throughout the game,” Ricco said. “I’m even more proud of the guys who have stayed here and the work they do on a daily basis.”

It’s worth noting that the Mets indeed have kept some of their front-office prospects. Among them: Ian Levin, an intern in 2006 who now is director of player development, and TJ Barra, who did not intern with the Mets but joined them in 2007 as a relatively recent college graduate and now is director of baseball research and development.

A common thread in the ones who got away: They have a background, if not outright specialize, in analytics. Fred Wilpon is reputed to not value analytics, instead strongly preferring old-school scouting information in baseball decision-making. Despite hiring Sandy Alderson, considered a godfather of the sabermetrics movement, and once employing Paul DePodesta, a prominent figure for the “Moneyball” A’s, the Mets have not kept pace from a pure bodies standpoint in the sport’s big-data arms race. Their analytics department is among the smallest in baseball with only three full-time employees.

“The people that are in place are what was asked for by the administration that was here,” Jeff Wilpon said last month. “And if somebody comes in and says we have to beef up this area or that area, we’re totally fine to do that.”

Multiple sources disputed Wilpon’s statement, saying ownership denied repeated requests in recent years from Alderson’s baseball operations department to add to the analytics staff.

The names above aren’t a complete list, either. There are more former Mets at the lower levels of front offices, plus former hitting coach Dave Hudgens (fired in 2014; current Astros hitting coach) and former bench coach Bob Geren (allowed to become Dodgers bench coach after 2015) who have done well with more analytically inclined organizations.

Might having former staffers spread out across the game benefit the Mets? Probably. Baseball is an everybody-knows-everybody kind of world, but taking that one level deeper — having an actual personal relationship with folks on other teams — can lubricate inter-club dialogue. When the Mets traded Neil Walker to the Brewers in August 2017, for example, the history between Stearns and his old Mets bosses helped.

It’s hard not to wonder about the endless what-ifs had the Mets decide to pay and promote Stearns, Strangio or any of the others. Those decisions and others have fostered what multiple sources described as an environment in which all but a select few employees are expendable.

And so the Mets continue to look externally for their next GM. First-round interviews, conducted by Jeff Wilpon and Ricco, will continue this week.

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