We all make mistakes. Last night, I made stir fry rice and put the leftover rice into the pan with my garlic and vegetables before testing it to make sure it was still good. And much to my chagrin, the rice was bad. So, had to go back and start the process all over again and kicked myself about it for a good half hour. But hopefully you learn from your mistakes. Next time fried rice is on the docket to be made; you can be certain that the rice will be checked by me before it hits the pan.
Brodie Van Wagenen made a mistake, too, but his was on a bit larger of a scale than ruining fried rice. Van Wagenen’s blunder was letting Zack Wheeler get away. And not only did he get away, he went to a team that looks like it will make the playoffs from the Mets’ division while the Mets sit at home, twiddle their thumbs and wonder what might have been. What the 2020 Mets needed more than anything was a good starting pitcher. All Wheeler did was throw 64 innings and put up a 2.67 ERA. It hurts seeing that on another team.
Van Wagenen inherited a situation that was far from ideal – no one thinks working for the Wilpons is a great gig – but the payroll was set up to afford extending three of the pitchers. But Van Wagenen painted himself into a corner, giving an extension to Jacob deGrom before he had to and bringing on the albatross contract of Robinson Cano. If he had approached Wheeler instead of deGrom about an extension before the 2019 season, he could have gotten a deal done for a significant discount compared to the 5/$118 deal he ended up signing with the Phillies this past offseason.
But even after whiffing on the Wheeler extension in his initial year on the job, the heavens aligned and the Mets had more money than anyone could have anticipated, due to two reasons. First, Yoenis Cespedes had his contract restructured, offering significant savings available to the club. Now, the final restructuring wasn’t official until after Wheeler signed with the Phillies but the club knew it was in the driver’s seat, especially since Van Wagenen negotiated Cespedes’ deal when he was an agent. The Mets knew they weren’t going to be on the hook for the $29.5 million that Cespedes was originally slated to receive. The only question was if it was going to be discounted or voided completely. The Mets ended up saving roughly $20 million with the restructure.
The second way the Mets’ had additional money at their disposal was that the Wilpons agreed to a higher payroll. The 2019 Opening Day (OD) payroll was $158.7 million and the 2020 OD payroll was slated to be $188.9 million before Covid hit and the season reduced. Now, this is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. The 2019 OD payroll was for 25 players and the 2020 one was for 30 players. If we subtract out the bottom five contracts, the 2020 OD payroll would be roughly $3 million fewer than it actually was. So, we’re looking at a payroll increase of about $27 million, which easily would have paid for Wheeler’s new deal.
Wheeler didn’t remain with the Mets because Van Wagenen didn’t think he was worth retaining, especially at the number he ended up getting from the Phillies. We know this because Van Wagenen said it explicitly after he got into a war of words with Wheeler. Here’s how Mike Puma of the New York Post described things back in February:
Van Wagenen said he spoke to Wheeler’s agent through the offseason, including in the week up until the pitcher signed with the Phillies, and discussed with him the parameters of what the Mets were willing to spend on a new contract for Wheeler.
“We were interested in bringing him back and communicated that,” Van Wagenen said. “Not at that level of contract.”
“I think that is what elevated him to the contract he received,” Van Wagenen said, referring to Wheeler’s finishes to the ’18 and ’19 seasons. “Zack is a good pitcher. That is why we wanted to re-sign him. It’s just the contract and the market that he enjoyed was beyond what our appetite level was.”
Van Wagenen didn’t think Wheeler was worth the money. This season the Phillies were slated to pay Wheeler $21.5 million. Let’s see what Van Wagenen thought was a better use of resources. All dollar figures are what the player would have been paid for a 162-game season.
That’s $23.8 million for this year. If the Mets signed Wheeler to the contract the Phillies did, they would have had $2.3 million for a reliever, a backup center fielder and a swing man. They could have gotten either Billy Hamilton or Juan Lagares – two guys they eventually picked up – for just over minimum wage to fill the backup CF role. There were numerous relievers they could have signed instead of Betances and it wouldn’t have been hard to match Betances’ production at a fraction of the cost. The swing man would have been tougher to fill with the available money. But let’s be honest – Wacha was terrible and whoever they signed would have been a decent replacement.
You can dismiss some of this as revisionist history. And from the point of view of who the Mets did choose to sign, that’s certainly true. But what can’t be explained away is the fact that Van Wagenen was completely wrong on his Wheeler evaluation
When Daniel Murphy left after the 2015 season, he wanted a multi-year contract and the Mets weren’t ready to give him one. If he would have been willing to do a one-year deal, the Mets would have paid him a market-rate deal once he proved his power was real. But there have been no reports that the Mets were unwilling to give Wheeler a multi-year deal. Van Wagenen just didn’t think he was worth what the market was willing to pay.
In the past two years, there have been 38 seasons by pitchers to amass a 4.0 or better fWAR. Here are the pitchers to do it twice and their current contracts:
Scherzer, Verlander and Cole have longer track records of success than Wheeler. deGrom does, too, but he was also still under team control when he signed his extension. Corbin is probably the best comp for Wheeler. He came off two seasons with a combined 8.9 fWAR before signing his deal with the Nationals prior to the 2019 season. Wheeler was coming off two seasons with a combined 8.9 fWAR. No one should be surprised that Wheeler got the deal he did. It’s just a matter of if you think he was worth it.
Van Wagenen didn’t think he was worth it. Wheeler’s adjusted salary for 2020 is just under $8 million. According to FanGraphs, Wheeler has returned $14.2 million of value for the Phillies this year. Van Wagenen was colossally wrong in 2020 and because he was wrong the Mets won’t make the playoffs. And because of this big miss, he may be out of a job before the calendar year is out. Van Wagenen got the gig because of his relationship with the Wilpons. But with the Wilpons selling, he’s going to be judged on his performance, not the fact that he golfs with Jeff Wilpon.
And it’s going to be easy to get rid of a guy who made a terrible trade to get Cano, a terrible move to initially hire Carlos Beltran as a manager and a terrible non-move in letting Wheeler walk. In this year where the Mets had their highest payroll ever and an extra team made the playoffs, the Mets will be sitting home in October. It’s just not a ringing endorsement of the GM and no one will bat an eye when the new owner brings in his own guy to run the franchise.
And hopefully the new GM won’t repeat another mistake that Van Wagenen made early in his tenure. Van Wagenen kept the manager from the previous GM, only to ditch him a year later after being exasperated watching him work. The first thing the new GM should do is hire his guy to be the manager. And let’s hope that we get a guy who doesn’t make bonehead moves in the dugout on a regular basis.