PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
The NL East is going to be a brutal, nasty place this season. And the sooner the Mets prepare themselves for the rock fight that awaits them, the better off they’ll be.
Which is why we had no issue at all with Brodie Van Wagenen’s cleverly worded yet stinging response to Zack Wheeler, who flat-out insulted his former team by saying “that’s how they roll” in not ponying up the cash to him in free agency.
We admit that it’s unusual for a general manager to climb into the ring with a player involving such matters. They reside in different arenas — one upstairs, the other between the lines. But Wheeler threw the first punch here and basically got what was coming to him when Van Wagenen referred to his “two good half-seasons over five years.”
This wasn’t just about Wheeler, either. Van Wagenen had no animosity toward his former No. 3 starter. The Mets made a business decision in passing on him, and he wound up getting $118 million from the Phillies, so Wheeler should have no complaints. If Van Wagenen was negligent or the Wilpons were too cheap, then the Mets’ loss turned out to be Wheeler’s lucrative gain at the end of the day.
Van Wagenen could have let this go, but he didn’t this time because he isn’t going to stand there while the Mets get punched in the face. This time he jabbed back with a surgical strike that made his point — and evidently got Wheeler’s attention. When the Philly media went back to Wheeler again Saturday in Clearwater, the pitcher retreated, calling an end to the 24-hour spat.
“Take it with a grain of salt, I guess,” Wheeler told reporters at the Phillies’ spring training site. “It is what it is. I don't want to make this go on any further. I don't think it's meant to go on any further. We're two grown-ups here and we're battling like little kids. I'm happy to be here with this group of guys.”
Van Wagenen’s mouth got him into trouble before his rookie season a year ago. Saying the Mets “could be the favorites in the division” and “we’re a team to be reckoned with” were two winter proclamations he’d like to have back. And his infamous “come get us” will live forever in Mets lore.
But in those instances, Van Wagenen led with his chin, plunging recklessly into unfamiliar territory. The smackdown that followed was too predictable.
With Wheeler, however, Van Wagenen was on the defensive. And for that reason, we’re fine giving his clapback at Wheeler a round of applause.
The Mets have absorbed plenty of abuse this winter. There was the misguided hiring of Carlos Beltran followed by his awkward firing just 77 days later. The collapse of the $2.6 billion sale to Steve Cohen. And, of course, the revelation of the boar attack on Yoenis Cespedes, whose contract was gutted as a result.
Occasionally, the Mets get tired of being the butt of the joke, and Van Wagenen drew the line Friday at Wheeler’s comments. This team is going to need more of that attitude, regardless of where they get it from.
Luis Rojas has plenty of managing experience in the minors, but he’s a newbie in that role when it comes to The Show. Is Rojas going to be ready for the psych wars with new Phillies manager Joe Girardi, fortified by his decade-long stay in the Bronx?
Rojas possesses what you would describe as a slow heartbeat and has been praised for his calm, even-keeled demeanor. Maybe he’s a source of fiery inspiration behind closed doors, but we’ve yet to get a hint of anything resembling that.
When asked Saturday about how these Mets will forge their 2020 attitude and where they’ll get the necessary armor for the coming season in the especially hostile NL East, Rojas talked about it developing “organically” over the course of several months.
That’s a little too safe-space for us. We liked when the Mets and Phillies lobbed propaganda grenades across Florida at each other during spring training. It was Beltran who reignited the Jersey Turnpike Cold War in 2008 with his “team to beat” bravado, only to have it ultimately blow up in the Mets' faces. As students of Mets history know all too well, that season ended with a second straight Flushing collapse — and a Philadelphia World Series title.
Still, the best Mets teams fight for every inch and show some teeth when the moment demands it. To be the back-to-back Cy Young Award winner he is, Jacob deGrom needs a mean streak on the mound. We’ve seen Noah Syndergaard flick the switch to intimidation mode (although it should happen more). A year ago, the Mets eventually circled the wagons (at 11 games under .500) to climb back into the playoff race, so they have to find that edge again.
“It starts with a collective belief,” Pete Alonso said Saturday. “Last year, the second half just showed the awesome character we have. The dignity and respect that we had — not just for ourselves, but the whole organization.”
Like Van Wagenen’s zinger the other day, the Mets don’t need to start the fight. But this year, in a pugnacious NL East, they have to make sure to finish it.