PORT ST. LUCIE — As part of his vision to make the Mets perennial contenders, Brodie Van Wagenen will bank on the better angels of our nature.
Me, I just wonder about the backstabbing.
Van Wagenen’s steady presence in the Mets’ clubhouse at spring training, here at First Data Field, doesn’t rank as particularly unusual. More days than not in recent years, you’d see Van Wagenen’s predecessor Sandy Alderson strolling through and greeting those who crossed his path.
Come the regular season, however, Alderson largely avoided the home clubhouse at Citi Field. Van Wagenen? In line with his actions and words so far, the Mets’ new general manager intends to be front and center.
“I will …be a presence in the clubhouse with the players so that that communication is consistent, not once in a blue moon,” Van Wagenen told The Post on Wednesday. “Not on good days or bad days, but regularly, so that I can understand what the players’ needs are. So that I can go execute those needs or go fulfill whatever asks or requests that they have and make sure that we’re proactively looking for ways to put them in better situations.”
Just as Van Wagenen’s assistant GM for systematic development Adam Guttridge encourages the blurring of lines between scouting and analytics, the baseball operations boss proclaimed, “I don’t view our organization as a chain of command.” In fact, Mickey Callaway said that the men who sit atop what was the chain of command, CEO Fred Wilpon and COO Jeff Wilpon, also will be more regular presences in the clubhouse.
Much like the Mets’ very hiring of Van Wagenen in the first place, this is bold. It represents a break from convention. It’s so crazy that it just might work. Or it could relegate the Mets to the sort of boom (if they’re lucky) and bust cycles that Alderson and his predecessors Omar Minaya and Steve Phillips all oversaw.
Let’s start with this reality: Never has baseball seen an agent as prominent as Van Wagenen pivot to the GM’s seat, and in his final years at CAA, Van Wagenen conducted an extraordinary amount of business with the Mets. He re-signed Yoenis Cespedes twice. He brought over major-league free agents Todd Frazier and Jason Vargas and amateur free agent Tim Tebow. He negotiated deals for homegrown guys Jacob deGrom and Brandon Nimmo and saw Noah Syndergaard arrive via trade. And since becoming GM, he traded for one former client, Robinson Cano, and signed a second, Jed Lowrie, as a free agent.
That creates a significant segment of players whom Van Wagenen has known longer and better than he knows Callaway, the Alderson hire whom Van Wagenen inherited. And who know Van Wagenen better than they know Callaway, in his second year on the job.
Hence, I asked Van Wagenen about the possibility of players going around their manager and voicing their complaints and concerns to him, given their trust and history in him.
“I don’t think it’s a go-around,” Van Wagenen said. “Mickey knows that we all should have good relationships with the players. …I don’t feel it as being different, because it’s the only way I’ve ever operated. But my hope is that the players won’t feel like it’s an end-around, and I know that the coaches won’t feel like it’s an end-around.”
Said Callaway of Van Wagenen’s plan: “I encourage it. He’s got great relationships with most of these guys even coming in, so there’s not going to be anything uncomfortable about that.”
Back in 2011, when I wrote for Newsday, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman offered this thought to me: “Everyone in our clubhouse knows my job is to find someone better than they are. How am I in a position to be these guys’ confidant or best friend when my job is to find the best people to win?”
I paraphrased this quote to Van Wagenen. He responded, “I’m always going to be looking for areas to improve the team, and I think that’s what we’ve shown so far this offseason. But I view it as we help these players be the best they can be and be honest with them about how they can do that and make sure that we’re giving the resources to do that. If it doesn’t work, then I don’t want the player to ever be surprised that their role on the team may change.”
Alderson’s belief system mirrored Cashman’s. Minaya functioned more like Van Wagenen, having close relationships with his players, and if Van Wagenen can learn a lesson from that era, it’s to monitor his underlings. Tony Bernazard, whom Minaya brought in as his vice president of development, spent extensive time in the Mets clubhouse and carried an open contempt for manager Willie Randolph, whom the team fired in 2008; Bernazard got the ax the subsequent season.
Frazier, a ninth-year veteran who has played for four teams, said his previous communications with GMs amounted to “not much at all. The game’s changing. Everything’s kind of changing. I think it’s actually a good thing. Be honest and upfront, talk to the players, get to know them a little bit. So far, I like what Brodie’s doing.”
New Met Wilson Ramos, a 10th-year veteran on his fifth team, said that Nationals GM Mike Rizzo appeared regularly in the clubhouse.
“That’s a good idea when they like to do that, because players feel more confident,” he said. “There’s nothing better than playing with confidence.”
“It’s a collaborative culture. That’s the sea change that I want to create,” Van Wagenen said. “That’s the model that we had at CAA. …Everybody represented everyone. And I want to have everybody see it the same way. We are all here to serve players. We are all here to help the players be the best they can be. And with that mindset, we all share that responsibility.
“If that doesn’t happen, then I will be accountable for that.”
If it doesn’t happen here for Van Wagenen, he’ll need to account for much that has occurred as a result of his aggressiveness and daring. If it does, he’ll be a hero in Queens and beyond. Either way, this Mets experiment in collaboration, in spiritually voiding chains of command, won’t be boring.
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