Mets are reaching for relevance with the Robinson Cano trade, and it makes them one of 2019's most compelling teams
The Mets and Brodie Van Wagenen are going against the grain; will it pay off?
The Mets sent five players to the Mariners for two win-now commodities, on a team that probably isn't ready to win now. To understand how and why Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn, and Gerson Bautista (along with veteran salary fillers Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak) to Seattle for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz, a dose of perspective is in order.
When former Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington discussed the vacant GM job with the Mets, he presented his vision for a rebuild. That approach made plenty of sense. The Mets were coming off a fourth-place season, with the Braves and Phillies already through their own rebuilds and on the verge of extended runs of success thanks to their core of young talent. Both the Phillies (via a ) and Nationals (offsetting a potential Bryce Harper defection with a much improved catching corps) have also made aggressive moves to upgrade their 2019 rosters, and Hot Stove season still has a long way to go.
At any rate, the Mets' owners had other ideas. They've sought to push the team back into contention as quickly as possible. So Cherington withdrew his name from consideration.
Cherington was far from the only strong candidate the Wilpons vetted for the team's GM job. But whether it was Cherington, Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom, or others, most of them came from similar working backgrounds. They rightly believed in the importance of scouting and player development, and understood that baseball is a young man's game, that players are peaking at a younger age than they did a generation ago, and that going after big-name players in their 30s could be asking for trouble.
If the Wilpons could look at the Mets' existing roster and see an opportunity to win now, they'd be veering sharply against the industry's grain, eschewing the examples set by recent champions like the Cubs and Astros and aping some of the least successful practices of prior-generation owners like George Steinbrenner. To carry out that kind of vision, the Mets would need to hire an atypical general manager, someone not as intimately steeped in analytics and risk management, someone more willing to make a big splash and let the chips fall where they may.
The Mets found that kind of candidate in Brodie Van Wagenen. Rather than rising through the industry as an Ivy Leaguer-turned-intern-turned-baseball-ops-savant, Van Wagenen built his reputation as an agent, rising to the gig of co-head of CAA Sports. So the Mets hired their atypical candidate to carry out their atypical mission. Van Wagenen's first major move thus involved acquiring a famous former Yankee entering his late-30s, and a (very good) closer -- the kinds of commodities that the analytically oriented, risk-averse minds who now run the industry would usually reject in a heartbeat.
Van Wagenen knows Cano as well as anyone in the industry, considering he was Cano's agent when the second baseman bolted the Bronx for Seattle on a monstrous 10-year, $240 million contract. That deal more than doubled the biggest previous contract ever given to a second baseman, and also blew away all other offers, with the Yankees rumored to have stopped well short of $200 million in their attempt to retain Cano. The eight-time All-Star has been a very good player for most of his time with the M's, albeit not quite the perennial MVP candidate you might expect given his otherworldly compensation. Cano's actually alternated between near-elite and merely good, on an even-year, odd-year basis.
Robinson Cano as a Mariner
*wRC+ tallies all of a player's hitting contributions, adjusts for home-park effects, then spits out a value that uses 100 as a baseline. So a wRC+ of 120 would be 20% better than league average, while an 80 would be 20% worse.
Slap a double asterisk on that 2018 figure, because Cano missed half the season due to a suspension for violating the league's PED policy. Consider the headwinds he now faces heading into his 15th major league season. Cano is 36 years old, we don't know how he'll perform in the long run without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs, and we can even throw in the odd-year effect, for both the superstitious types and those who believe in regression. How sure are we that Cano is a significantly better bet in 2019 than Jeff McNeil, the Mets' incumbent second baseman who batted .329/.381/.471 in 225 plate appearances last season, and is 10 years younger than Cano? Let alone that acquiring Cano warrants sacrificing three prospects, one of them the sixth overall pick in last summer's amateur draft, and taking on $64 million in net salary?
The Mets would shoot back that Cano is merely one piece of the trade, and maybe not the best one. Edwin Diaz was one of the most devastating relief pitchers in the game last season, punching out 124 batters on 73 ⅓ innings, with a sparkling 1.96 ERA, a league-leading 57 saves, and his first All-Star appearance. Just 24 years old, Diaz's youth and cheap, controllable service time (he won't be arbitration-eligible for another year and can't test free agency for another four years) would seem to offer a great offset to Cano's mix of established skill and age-based risk.
The bad news is that Diaz plays one of the easiest positions to fill in baseball. This year's free-agent market includes twice as many relievers as we saw last year. Moreover, relief pitchers are one of the most volatile commodities in the game; consider how unhittable Andrew Miller looked just two years ago, vs. how fragile and mortal he looked in 2018. Elite relief pitchers are also luxury items, the kind that mediocre teams shouldn't necessarily shoot the moon to acquire given the cost-benefit ratio involved. Are the Mets truly good enough to make a run now that Cano and Diaz are on board?
Van Wagenen and friends are eager to find out. The Mets are reportedly talking to Cleveland about two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. If they acquired Kluber, the trio of Cleveland's ex-ace, 2018 NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom and fire-breather Noah Syndergaard could annihilate some of the Mets' toughest foes, perhaps making up for a flawed lineup. There are also rumors that the Mets could be shopping Syndergaard, which would be fascinating if a little inconsistent with the all-in approach they seem to be favoring with the Mariners deal and the Kluber interest.
Wherever the great rotation shuffles end up this winter, it's clear that the Mets have a mandate. They don't particularly care if the 19-year-old multi-tool threat Kelenic becomes a major league All-Star five years from now. They are similarly blasé about Dunn and Bautista blossoming, and about taking on a Cano contract that looks really onerous, even with the Mariners picking up $20 million of the remaining tab.
The Wilpons turn their gaze to the Bronx, see the Baby Bombers winning games and making headlines, and figure it's best to fight the babies of today with a baby from 2005. They're choosing to reach for relevance now, rather than risk the rock-bottom TV ratings and total local indifference that hit aggressive-rebuilding teams like the Astros (never mind the World Series that followed).
The move might work out, though more likely it won't. Either way, the Mets are choosing to zig while everyone else zags. That makes them one of the most compelling teams to watch in 2019, even if the experiment ends with a tire fire.
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