The same guy who got Robinson Cano a $240 million contract has gotten him back at a bargain price. And he says he’s not done dabbling in a winter player market that is percolating like Mount St. Helens before an eruption.
Brodie Van Wagenen was the player agent who convinced the Seattle Mariners to offer Cano the 10-year deal that convinced him to switch coasts six years ago. Now the veteran second baseman, who started his career with the Yankees in 2005, is returning to New York – in the employ of the other team in town — thanks to a trade engineered by Van Wagenen.
Van Wagenen was a surprise selection as general manager of the Mets just before Halloween after he agreed to switch from representing players to hiring and firing them.
Just a few months ago, he was telling the Mets that Jacob deGrom, his top pitching client, should get a contract extension or a ticket out of town. Now Van Wagenen can make those decisions himself.
In little more than a month, he’s gone from a guy nobody knew to a controversial figure willing to spend money, trade promising prospects, and basically do whatever it takes to resurrect a moribund Mets team that finished a disappointing fourth in the National League East last summer.
This week alone, he’s added Cano, an eight-time All-Star who’s seen better days, and Edwin Diaz, who led the majors with 57 saves for Seattle last summer, while subtracting Wilmer Flores, a versatile infielder with a clutch bat; underperforming veterans Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, and prospects Justin Dunn and Jarred Kelenic, both former first-round draft choices of the Mets.
He also convinced the Mariners to toss a cool $20 million into the deal, making it easier for the Mets to take on the $120 million that remains on Cano’s contract. So the Wilpons, anxious to win now, were willing to gamble on a player who turned 36 in October, missed half of last year after an 80-game suspension for drug abuse, and is unlikely to recapture the form that allowed him to approach 40 homers two years ago.
Plus he’s a lefthanded hitter on a team that already has too many of those.
Even if Cano follows in the faulty footsteps of Jim Fregosi, Joe Foy, and Juan Samuel, the key man for the Mets in the seven-player swap is Diaz, the only closer in baseball history to post a 50-save season at age 24 or younger. He blew just four save opportunities last summer, garnered a record 27 saves with a one-run lead, and joined Eric Gagne as the only closers with 50 saves and 100 strikeouts in the same season. The Mariners went 61-0 in games where Diaz had a save opportunity. Little wonder: Diaz had a Mariano-like 7.29 ratio of strikeouts to walks (134 and 17, respectively, in 73 1/3 innings). Only Rivera himself, in 19 seasons, topped that ratio only twice.
A fastball/slider pitcher who keeps the ball in the park (five home runs allowed in 2018), Diaz throws hard (98.01 mph average fastball) and throws strikes.
Had Diaz pitched for a more prominent or more successful team, he could have won the American League’s Cy Young Award, last given to a reliever when future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley won it in 1992.
The Mets, plagued by a bad bullpen last season, not only like his numbers but also the fact that the 6’3″ Puerto Rican righthander can’t become a free agent until after the 2022 season. Not even arbitration eligible, he earned a paltry (by baseball standards) $570,800 in 2018.
Mets brass also likes the fact that Diaz was highly coveted by all three of New York’s NL East rivals: the defending champion Atlanta Braves, runner-up Washington Nationals, and third-place Philadelphia Phillies.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Diaz has a bone spur in his pitching elbow. It’s never bothered him but it did cost him $150,000 – the amount his $450,000 signing bonus was reduced after the problem was discovered. Now that Major League Baseball has approved the amount of money changing hands in the transaction, the only thing that could derail the deal is the doctors reports from pending physicals.
In recent years, a medical report did stop a proposed Mets trade involving Flores for Carlos Gomez.
On the other hand, the only pitcher in baseball history to most more saves in a single season was Frankie (K-Rod) Rodriguez, who had 62 in 2008 (Bobby Thigpen, with 57 in 1990, shares second place with Diaz in that category.
Although the Mets managed to hold onto Jeff McNeil, who excelled as a rookie second baseman last summer, Cano is expected to handle that position. Though his dalliance with drugs wiped out his Hall of Fame candidacy last spring, he’s still within striking distance of Jeff Kent’s record for home runs by a second baseman. Kent hit 351 of his 377 home runs while playing second, with Cano at 296 out of 311.
New York plans to play power-hitting rookie Peter Alonso at first base in 2019, though Cano, McNeil, or Dom Smith could play there too. Smith has the best glove of the group but that may not matter.
It’s also possible McNeil might move on in a subsequent trade. Van Wagenen is outspoken about his need for a front-line catcher, though he could find one in the free-agent field, and also wants a centerfielder and a front-line pitcher. The team has been linked to two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, a hot commodity from Cleveland also coveted by the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Although Van Wagenen unloaded $37 million in salary by including Bruce and Swayzak in the Cano swap, he doesn’t have the same unlimited budget as the crosstown Yankees or World Champion Red Sox. That means more payroll-slicing could be in the offing, with erstwhile ace pitcher Noah Syndergaard, who earns just under $3 million, said to be available for the right return.
The new New York GM has certainly made his mark, keeping McNeil, as well as top prospects Andres Gimenez and Alonso, while sacrificing only Dunn and Kelenic, both of whom toiled in the lower minors last year. Dunn is a righthanded pitcher while Kelenic is an outfielder some scouts say is a future five-tools talent.
From the Seattle perspective, the swap is puzzling – with Diaz the obvious inducement for the club to get rid of the onerous Cano contract. Hyperactive Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, the modern-day version of Frank (Trader) Lane, has already traded star southpaw James Paxton to the Yankees for prospects and is virtually certain to make more deals during the Baseball Winter Meetings that begin in Las Vegas Dec. 9.
So is Van Wagenen.