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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Why Billy Eppler could be well-positioned to succeed as Mets general manager

Angels general manager Billy Eppler answers questions during

Angels general manager Billy Eppler answers questions during a press conference at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on Dec. 14, 2019, in Anaheim, Calif. Credit: Getty Images/Jayne Kamin-Oncea

Midway through Friday’s zoom introduction for the Mets’ new GM, I received a text message from a rival baseball executive who knows Billy Eppler well (not Brian Cashman) and was intrigued by his pairing with the team’s billionaire owner Steve Cohen.

"It could take some time," he wrote, "but I think he and Billy could be a great combo. I think Billy knows what he’s doing and Cohen has the cash."

A similar scenario in SoCal didn’t work out so great for Eppler, who had difficulty fending off meddlesome Angels owner Arte Moreno (personal fortune: roughly $4 billion) and was fired in 2020 after five sub-.500 seasons as GM.

What’s going to be different now in Flushing? First off, everyone’s smarter the second time around, and by all accounts, working under Moreno was no picnic for a rookie GM, even one hardened by the Bronx after Eppler spent more than a dozen years with the Yankees. Not only does Eppler seem re-energized by his return to New York, but the mistakes made in Anaheim -- notably his failures to put together a pitching staff -- can now be considered part of the learning process.

Another thing going for Eppler? The Mets desperately need him to succeed after the debacle Cohen’s debut year has been, from the front-office follies to the second-half collapse in the standings, so he’s going to get the financial backing. On Friday, Sandy Alderson tried to dismiss the darkly comedic nature of the Mets’ GM search by saying it "was not a linear process" that ultimately got them to Eppler.

No kidding, Sandy. It also began the previous November as a hunt for a president of baseball operations, then was downgraded to merely recruiting a GM who would be granted a one-season audition to prove they didn’t need to hire a superior, whatever the heck that meant. Based on the Mets’ recent track record, time would seem to be on Eppler’s side. And getting someone with Eppler’s resume could change that equation to some degree. The Mets gave him a four-year contract, and even though the Brewers’ David Stearns looms on the horizon for 2023, Cohen made it clear Friday he’s going all-in to fund Eppler’s NYC comeback story, effective immediately.

"It’s going to require probably spending, and that’s what’s going to happen," Cohen said. "I’ve let Billy know that I’m willing -- for the right deals and the right free agents -- to go and get the players we need."

Eppler said Friday that he already had been flooded with texts from agents once the Mets made his hiring official late Thursday night. We can only imagine how much his phone was blowing up after Cohen’s comments. By introducing Eppler as the franchise’s 16th GM, the Mets finally were able to retire the punchlines from the past six weeks or so. They got an experienced decision-maker, fluent in both scouting and analytics, with a Yankees’ pedigree and familiarity with the New York fishbowl.

"I think the city teaches patience," Eppler said. "I think the city teaches resiliency, and humility."

Cohen didn’t sound all that patient Friday, but life in Flushing dishes out Costco-sized cans of the other two. Now with Eppler on board, the Mets have more bad narratives to conquer, namely Alderson’s influence on baseball ops and how much that will continue over this coming season.

Alderson attempted to backpedal some during Friday’s hour-long Zoom news conference, insisting that this would be Eppler’s show and he would take more of an advisory role. But Sandy is still club president -- reporting only to Cohen -- and he can’t help himself after a lifetime of being a shot-caller. It’s undeniable that Alderson’s presence spooked some worthy candidates, and him being positioned Friday side-by-side with Cohen didn’t help to dispel the notion of his sizable influence.

"We will certainly consult with one another, but I expect Billy to be driving this operation," Alderson said. "I will be available as a resource, and as time goes on, I expect [Billy’s] latitude to expand and that my role will diminish."

That was the plan last year, too. But his first GM Jared Porter was fired after only five weeks on the job, and next-man-up Zack Scott was supplanted by Alderson after his September DUI (then fired earlier this month). Now it’s Eppler’s turn, and after the front-office circus that’s preceded him, all he has to do is not show up wearing clown shoes.

For now, Eppler has to jump into this overheated free-agent market before the expected Dec. 2 lockout, then work on the manager hire during the transaction freeze. Even a moderate show of competency from the Mets’ front office will go a long way after this mostly regrettable 2021.

"It’s evident that we’re going to have some resources behind us," Eppler said.

There are worse things than getting a second chance at the table staked by Cohen’s billions. Eppler better make this gamble pay off.

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