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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Finding someone to build Mets proves as challenging as trying to win for Steve Cohen

Mets owner Steve Cohen attends the opening of

Mets owner Steve Cohen attends the opening of Citi Field as a mass vaccination site on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Credit: Corey Sipkin

Back in September, when anything still seemed possible for the Mets in their looming search for a president of baseball operations, a few red flags popped up early.

In speaking with team officials, the front office came across as a little too attached to the current infrastructure in place, satisfied by the moderate gains made upstairs during megabillionare Steve Cohen’s first 11 months as owner. When it was suggested that department-wide changes could come with the arrival of a new baseball ops chief, that possibility was dismissed as unnecessary, seeing as the Mets already had plenty of good people in place.

Also, the Mets expressed a surprising confidence in their ability to land one of the industry’s most established stars -- Theo Epstein or Billy Beane -- and figured this would be a much cleaner, quicker process than last year’s recruitment, which was doomed in part by a late start.

On the surface, it didn’t make sense. How could the Mets hope to lure a giant capable of rebooting their entire organization without offering the complete autonomy to do so? And did Cohen, along with president Sandy Alderson, misread the outside perception of the franchise after paying $2.45 billion for what now looks like a fixer-upper situated in a prime real estate?

 

Bottom line, we’re still in October. The Mets aren’t preparing to run it back with Alderson and banished GM Zack Scott. Not yet, anyway.

But it’s definitely fair to question the process, which was flawed from the jump, and now looks progressively worse each time another candidate either refuses to be considered or is denied permission to interview. Two more of those popped up Wednesday. A source confirmed that Brewers GM Matt Arnold was not allowed to speak with the Mets -- owner Mark Attanasio instead has promised him an extension, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. Cardinals GM Michael Girsch basically told the Mets "no thanks" and removed himself from the running, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In Arnold’s case, the Mets should’ve had an idea of what was coming. Attanasio already had shot down their attempt to speak with his own president of baseball operations David Stearns (he’d been telling people privately weeks earlier it was never going to happen). But keeping Arnold away from the Mets -- despite a shot at a promotion in Flushing -- felt like a personal slap against Cohen’s big-market club.

As for Girsch, he seems to fall into a different category. Those who aren’t all that thrilled about leaving good teams, in comfortable places, to take on an extremely high-profile, high-pressure gig with a Mets’ team that is going to require a serious amount of work.

And don’t forget. The position comes with a front office already stocked through the years by someone else, one that got the Mets into first place for more than 100 days before going into a death spiral for the second half of last season. No wonder that bright young execs from the Giants, Cardinals, Rays, Brewers and Dodgers -- all perennial playoff favorites -- aren’t rushing to take Cohen’s money. That’s compounded by having to answer to Alderson, as well as inheriting his son, Bryn, who was promoted to assistant GM last year.

Judging by the response, you’d think Cohen wanted them to wear the Mr. Met head for a steamy July doubleheader. At this stage, things haven’t gone according to plan, to put it politely. But the Mets set themselves up for a spectacular failure in not vetting Epstein, Beane and Stearns more quietly behind the scenes before enduring all that rejection with their search fully underway.

By the time the Big Three excused themselves from the stage, the pitchforks were out, and the Mets are now having trouble reversing that negative momentum. It hasn’t helped that Cohen is looping in former New Jersey governor Chris Christie -- appointed by the owner to the team’s board of directors -- in a squirmy detail first reported Wednesday by the New York Daily News. Can the crowd-sourcing on Twitter be far behind?

Maybe that would help. At least Cohen could then find out who actually wants the Mets’ job first before teeing up the franchise for more public humiliation. Jokes aside, the Mets do have time to fix this, especially as MLB appears to be on a crash course with a shutdown once the CBA expires on Dec. 1. Ideally, it’s preferable that the Mets come up with a battle plan for these contingencies sooner rather than later -- there are a number of key decisions to be made over the next month -- but the team’s early hiring window seems to already have closed.

It was almost a year ago Cohen bought the Mets and pledged to win a World Series by 2025. Who could have suspected that merely finding someone to build him that team would prove to be just as challenging.

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