The two-part question I posed Friday to Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, in light of Steve Cohen’s $2.475 billion purchase of the franchise, was simple and straightforward.
Has Cohen given Van Wagenen any assurances that he will retain his job title beyond this season? And is he under the impression that 2020 — as strange as it has been — has served as an audition period for his future even though he has a contract for two more years?
The answer was not even in the ballpark of what I anticipated.
First off, no, Van Wagenen said those conversations have not taken place. In fact, the last time he spoke with Cohen was during the winter, when the hedge-fund billionaire initially tried to take over a majority stake in the Mets.
In replying to the second part, Van Wagenen suddenly switched gears to a quote from Nelson Mandela. Borrowing from the anti-apartheid icon was an inspired choice, no doubt. But I couldn’t help but wonder where he was going with this.
"Nelson Mandela said the words ‘I never lose — I either win or I learn,’ and I think that's the approach we want to take to our team," Van Wagenen said. "We're either going to win the game tonight or we're going to learn something that's going to give us a chance to win tomorrow."
Van Wagenen mentioned that he’s shared the quote with the clubhouse and the coaching staff in the past.
We’ll overlook the fact that he brought this up to us Friday a few hours before the Mets were pounded by Atlanta, 15-2, in a crippling blow to his club’s fading playoff hopes.
But if Van Wagenen ever gets another chance to chat with Cohen, perhaps for an interview to remain as general manager, he might want to skip that Mandela quote and go with another strategy. Cohen, who manages a $13 billion fortune, certainly doesn’t have the patience to spend a lot of time on learning curves, whether it be with his own investment business or the Mets.
Cohen also can’t afford to have a general manager who thinks that way. The Mets don’t play in Binghamton or Syracuse. Once everyone arrives in Flushing, either upstairs at Citi Field or down in the dugout, it’s got to be a zero-sum game.
The Mets are judged daily by wins and losses. By the end of the season, did they make the playoffs or not?
Granted, Van Wagenen’s hire in November 2018 was an experiment, as the Wilpons tapped a highly successful agent to do something agents are rarely asked to do: run an entire baseball organization. It was a very risky gamble for a franchise that has shown a remarkable knack for screwing up even the no-brainers.
At the time, everyone understood that Van Wagenen would need to learn on the fly. But in my view, his biggest asset was an already friendly/functional relationship with chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, who flexed his control over every aspect of the team. And now, in retrospect, I can’t help but think bringing Van Wagenen on board was meant to be a short-term bridge to facilitate selling the Mets, like a slick, image-first real-estate broker who stages the rooms of your home to impress buyers.
Principal owner Fred Wilpon and his brother-in-law, team president Saul Katz, certainly had thoughts about selling the franchise before signing off on Van Wagenen, considering the first Cohen handshake deal came within 14 months of his hire. You don’t just wake up one morning with the idea of selling 80% (which later became 95%) of your baseball team.
Van Wagenen also operated like a general manager who wasn’t looking all that far ahead by immediately dispatching top prospects for shaky quick-fix solutions. The Wilpons gave him a four-year, $10 million contract that would serve as a decent parachute if the next owner, now Cohen, preferred to clean house at Citi Field.
As September winds down, Van Wagenen insists his focus is on the present. The Mets (23-28), who faced NL East-leading Atlanta on Saturday night, began the day 2 1/2 games out of the last wild-card spot, with two teams between them and the eighth-seeded Phillies and only nine games remaining.
A year ago, the Mets went on a furious second-half rally — fueled by their stellar (and surprisingly healthy) starting rotation — to finish with 86 wins. They missed the playoffs by three games.
Under the Wilpons’ stewardship, Van Wagenen's first two years feel like business as usual: a day late, a dollar short. But as disappointing as the 2020 season ultimately may turn out to be — especially if the Mets don’t make the cut for this newly expanded eight-team playoff field (out of 15 in each league) — it’s still difficult to analyze people’s performance in a year severely altered by a once-a-century pandemic.
"I think our guys competed well," Van Wagenen said. "It hasn't been easy. We've had a fair amount of adversity not only in terms of the roster but also the performances. And we find ourselves now in a position that we hoped to be better than."
Making the playoffs or not shouldn’t be a determining factor in the decision whether to keep Van Wagenen. It’s got to be bigger than that. And with the general manager saying Friday that he hadn’t spoken to Cohen since the sale agreement was announced Monday, that can’t be a positive sign for his future in Flushing.
On the flip side, the timing of the sale could work in Van Wagenen’s favor. Cohen still needs to be approved by 22 of the other 29 owners (the Mets presumably count as a yes vote), and the quicker that happens, the greater the chance that Cohen will have a window to remake the front office with his own people. As it stands now, the expectation is that a vote on Cohen will be taken well ahead of the owners’ meetings scheduled for Nov. 17, but the exact timeline is unclear, according to multiple sources.
Maybe the most effective plan to navigate what is sure to be a chaotic offseason is for Cohen to bring in someone to work with Van Wagenen, to help with the transition to 2021. It also could mean a more impactful role for current Mets executive Omar Minaya, who already has a relationship with Cohen. But the secretive Cohen still looms as a mysterious figure despite being a minority shareholder (8%) since 2012.
"I know he's competitive," Van Wagenen said. "He's historically believed in investing in the infrastructure of his organizations and the intellectual capital of the people that work for him. So with that mindset, if he carries that over to the team he's had a long-term passion for, I think it's an opportunity for the organization to continue to go in a progressive way."
How that corporate strategy will affect the current Mets regime is not yet publicly known. But it’s probably a safe bet that Cohen, who grew up a Mets fan in Great Neck, has seen enough of this team lately to realize it should be winning more. Given his resume, that’s the only lesson he’ll be teaching, one way or another.