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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets' search for an executive spinning its wheels

Mets owner Steve Cohen (left) and general manager

Mets owner Steve Cohen (left) and general manager Sandy Alderson chat during a spring training workout Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Port St. Lucie, FL. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Steve Cohen isn’t the first Mets executive to frame a five-year window for a championship upon taking over in Flushing.

Frank Cashen did it too after new co-owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday hired him to be their first general manager in 1980. It took him a year longer than his original prediction, but Cashen delivered on that pledge.

No Mets GM has done it since — or even been bold enough to suggest a timeline for a title. These days, it’s hard enough for the Mets to find someone to take the job, never mind actually build a contender.

But we bring up Cashen now as one of the rare Mets architects recruited from outside Queens — he was recommended to the Wilpon-Doubleday partnership — during the past four decades. During most of this period, the Wilpons relied on a steady progression of familiar in-house candidates, from Steve Phillips to Jim Duquette to Omar Minaya — all of them lieutenants in previous Mets administrations.

The two recent exceptions didn’t come out of nowhere, either. Sandy Alderson’s first tenure resulted from MLB’s intervention to help stabilize the Mets during the Madoff Ponzi scheme turbulence. As for Brodie Van Wagenen, his ill-fated leap from agent to GM came about only because of his chummy relationship with Jeff Wilpon, who chose him over the other finalist, the Rays’ Chaim Bloom, now the chief baseball officer for the Red Sox.

Seeing a pattern here? As Cohen is discovering, it’s not so easy to tap a relative unknown from another organization, or even convince an established team-builder to come aboard, especially when the ship seems to be floundering. There’s a trust factor involved, which is why the preferred route is to simply transition along the front-office authority chain.

Cohen and Alderson never had that option after the Van Wagenen & Co. housecleaning, then found out how problematic that can be when they couldn’t land a president of baseball operations last winter before settling on Jared Porter as GM. Porter wasn’t exactly the second coming of Cashen. He lasted 37 days before being fired for sending unsolicited, sleazy texts to a female reporter nearly five years earlier.

Such are the pitfalls of unfamiliar faces (along with an inadequate vetting process), and the Mets were forced into a patch-job front office this past season by elevating Zack Scott to acting GM. At this moment, the franchise remains in limbo, with Scott on administrative leave because of a pending DWI case and Cohen getting rebuffed by a dozen candidates, with some never getting to the permission-to-speak stage.

The disconcerting part is the unsettled feel of the whole thing. What exactly is the plan? Is it to hire a president of baseball operations? A GM? Both?

At the outset, it seemed to be a sequential operation with the early pursuit of heavy hitters like Theo Epstein, Billy Beane and David Stearns to run the organization. But when none of those names worked out, Cohen and Alderson went to the next tier — with similar backgrounds to Scott — and that also has yet to produce a viable candidate.

The Mets’ current scramble could use a power move like the one the Wilpons executed toward the end of the 2004 season, when they made a secret recruiting trip to Montreal to court Minaya, who was the Expos' GM at the time. It was an awkward situation, as Minaya’s hiring wound up demoting Duquette — the two previously had been assistant GMs together in Flushing — but the Wilpons made two key promises to Minaya: full autonomy and a new infusion of cash.

Minaya’s return triggered a Shea Stadium renaissance, a flurry of free-agent signings that eventually propelled them to within a Carlos Beltran (non-) swing of the 2006 World Series. While things went downhill from there, including two subsequent September collapses, Minaya’s front office still wound up putting a foundation in place for Alderson’s World Series team in 2015.

Minaya’s autonomy was debatable. Jeff Wilpon, as the team’s chief operating officer, was closely involved with just about every detail of the franchise, but the relationship with Minaya seemed to work, at least early on.

Oddly enough, Minaya still is employed by the Mets, officially as a club ambassador, not a decision-maker, and there’s been no talk of him taking another turn in the front office.

As for Cohen, what’s he willing to promise candidates to get them to Flushing? Spending on players shouldn’t be an issue. Cohen, worth an estimated $14 billion, already made Francisco Lindor the richest shortstop in the sport by handing him a 10-year, $341 million contract last April.

Anyone seeking full autonomy, however, has reason to be wary, and the Mets seem unclear on their intent for these new positions. As long as Alderson remains installed as team president, the only person above him is Cohen, so where does that leave the next head of baseball operations?

Also, Cohen initially said he would leave running the on-field stuff to his baseball people. He couldn’t resist sounding off on Twitter during the season, though, and now is spearheading the pursuit of these next front-office executives, consulting former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — a member of the team’s board of directors — along the way.

In the meantime, the Mets have picked up the option on pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, a decision we can only assume was made by Alderson.

As for the next manager, who knows at this point? They missed out on one of the best candidates when Bob Melvin left the A's for the Padres this past week, the most recent example of how this bumpy front-office recruitment process is potentially hurting their 2022 makeover.

Finding the next Cashen — or Minaya, for that matter — has been a troublesome exercise so far.

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