Friday was an amazing day in Mets history, as Steve Cohen assumed ownership of the Mets and Sandy Alderson did his best Michael Corleone impression by cleaning house, announcing that Brodie Van Wagenen, his three top lieutenants and Omar Minaya would be leaving the organization. If there was the slightest bit of uncertainty, these moves left no doubt that Alderson has freedom under Cohen that he didn’t have previously under the Wilpons. Minaya was a favorite of Fred Wilpon and it’s hard to imagine that Alderson was overjoyed when the elder Wilpon brought Minaya back to the Mets while he was still there. This is Alderson’s ship and we’ll finally get to see him in complete control of who stays and who goes.
The fact that Alderson was able to bring the Mets to the World Series despite having (at least) one hand tied behind his back due to the Wilpon circus and fallout from the Bernie Madoff fiasco is one of the most underappreciated stories of the 21st Century in MLB. It will be great to see Alderson work without unnecessary restrictions. But that story will unfold in the days, months and years ahead. Right now it’s time to take a look back and try to give an honest assessment of what’s happened in the past and where the Mets stand right this moment.
Tim Britton of The Athletic reported on Friday’s events in Metsland and had what struck me as a really odd take. Britton said, “[T]he Mets are in a better place competitively now than they were on the day they hired Van Wagenen.”
In support of his position, Britton mentioned the extension to Jacob deGrom and Van Wagenen’s willingness to ignore service time considerations by playing youngsters right away. And that’s it – nothing more, nothing less.
Let’s take a look at what Van Wagenen inherited versus what he leaves behind. Let’s start with payroll. There’s not a great way to look at this but let’s use the season-ending 40-man Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) payrolls available at Cot’s. It’s not perfect because these CBT payrolls give the average of a contract over its length, rather than what was actually spent in a given year. But it gives a good ballpark estimate and will work for our purposes. Here’s what Van Wagenen inherited, the Mets’ 2018 CBT Payroll which sat at $160.3 million. And here’s what he left behind, a 2020 CBT Payroll of $202 million.
Van Wagenen was working with a budget $40 million higher than what Alderson had at his disposal. That seems pretty significant. Let’s see what Van Wagenen did with that money, again looking at what he inherited and what he left behind. Let’s do a position breakdown for the MLB club and a list of 10 prospects. Here’s what he inherited:
C – Travis d’Arnaud, Kevin Plawecki
1B – Wilmer Flores, Dominic Smith
2B – Jeff McNeil
3B – Todd Frazier
SS – Amed Rosario, Luis Guillorme
OF – Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, Jay Bruce, Juan Lagares
SP – deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Jason Vargas
RP – Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman, Anthony Swarzak and a whole lot of flotsam
It was a roster loaded with pre-arb and early arbitration players. There were some big pay days coming to starting pitchers, but the roster was set up to afford three of them, even with 2018 Wilpon payroll constraints. And there were starting pitching prospects bubbling up from the minors, with the four listed here, along with Thomas Szapucki, Franklyn Kilome, Jordan Humphreys and Kevin Smith.
They needed to hit on one of these eight and two would be a bonus.
Now let’s look at what Van Wagenen leaves behind:
C – Tomas Nido
1B – Alonso
2B – Robinson Cano
3B – McNeil, J.D. Davis
SS – Gimenez, Rosario
OF – Smith, Conforto, Nimmo, Guillermo Heredia
SP – deGrom, Peterson, Syndergaard, Matz, Lugo
RP – Edwin Diaz, Jeurys Familia, Dellin Betances, Brad Brach, Chasen Shreve, Miguel Castro
Let’s break this down by position:
C – Inherited better
1B – Left better due to the rise of a player Alderson drafted
2B – Inherited much cheaper and better
3B – Left better
SS – Push
OF – Left better but completely due to the maturation of Alderson draft picks
SP – Inherited better
RP – Left better but questionable by how much and also considerably more spent to achieve upgrade
Minors – No way to know. We know he inherited a 50-HR hitter, a SS spark plug and a guy who ended the year as the team’s SP2. There were three guys who were on both lists and Valdez was signed under Alderson. Let’s hope that this is a situation that we’ll one day say was left better because what was inherited was pretty good.
Should Van Wagenen get credit for steps forward by players Alderson drafted? It seems you can make a case for him extending deGrom but the others? And let’s look at deGrom – he was inherited by Van Wagenen as an arbitration-eligible guy. And he’s left to Alderson now on a 3/$97.5 million deal, with a $32.5 million club option for 2024. It’s wonderful knowing he’s going to be on the club the next three years. But let’s not pretend that this is on some unbelievable home town discount. Gerrit Cole will make $108 million the next three years while Stephen Strasburg will make $105 million. By choosing to sign deGrom when he did, Van Wagenen saved the club somewhere around $10 million combined over the 2021-2023 seasons. And he left himself without the money to give Wheeler a market-level deal, whether that was market level following the 2018 season when he should have been extended or following 2019, when it would have cost a lot more but Van Wagenen decided he wasn’t worth it and spent that money instead on Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha, among others.
It’s really hard to count that as a win.
Van Wagenen leaves behind a locked up deGrom, three more years of Cano, an arbitration-eligible Diaz, relatively expensive bullpen pieces in Betances, Brach and Familia, along with Davis. Is that worth d’Arnaud, Wheeler, Kelenic, Woods Richardson, Dunn, Kay and $40 million? Not in my estimation, not even close.
We’ll have to see how the two drafts Van Wagenen oversaw unfold before we can write his final epitaph. Both drafts look very good right now. It’s important to note that the success or failure will ride most heavily on Wolf, Allan and Ginn. Baty, the top pick in 2019, signed an underslot deal while Crow-Armstrong, the top pick in 2020, signed for a slot-level deal. If they succeed, it will mean Van Wagenen matched Alderson when he took Smith (underslot) and Conforto (slot level.)
Alderson never really hit a home run on draftees to which he gave an overslot bonus so Van Wagenen has the potential to make up some ground here. But he’s far behind on the overall score right now and he likely doesn’t have much chance with his college senior signings to afford the overslot guys to match Alderson’s low-round draft picks like Lugo or McNeil.
The only way that Britton is right, that the Mets in a better place competitively now than when Van Wagenen took over, is that the Wilpons aren’t around to make things difficult. And it’s impossible to credit Van Wagenen for that.