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LAS VEGAS – In this city that tries to make fake seem real, the New York Mets continued to sell the idea that all it took was a new general manager to wipe away decades of dysfunction. Maybe Brodie Van Wagenen really is some kind of uber-magician, a sleight-of-hand artist who can hypnotize the Mets’ onerous ownership into disappearing from its meddlesome ways of the past. Over his first six weeks as Mets GM, at the very least, Van Wagenen has fulfilled a long-held desire for those owners: relevance.
And considering that in 2018 truth is a matter of opinion and branding consists of repeating something enough that it becomes accepted fact and distractions marry short attention spans to create an illusion, relevance isn’t terribly difficult. In baseball, particularly as the free-agent market grinds to another stalemate, simply suggesting something out of the ordinary suffices.
Just look at Monday night. The Mets’ interest in Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto is nothing new. That they’ve included discussions on a three-way trade that also would send Mets ace Noah Syndergaard to the New York Yankees plugged in the Realmuto talks, cranked them to 11 and landed the Mets a New York Post back page that wasn’t ripping their incompetence.
Which may not seem like a big deal. Except in the world of Jeff Wilpon, the Mets’ COO and son of owner Fred Wilpon, nothing is better than recognition ahead of the Yankees, and there they were: Syndergaard on the left side of the page, Realmuto on the right and, inset in the lower right-hand corner, smiling big, a cutout of Van Wagenen, who a month and a half ago was representing Syndergaard as an agent.
Let’s save the questions of how smart a deal it is or how likely it may be for later and focus instead on what Van Wagenen has done. The clearest path to the Mets winning is tapping the resources ownership long has held under lock and key, and the quickest way into the vault is by playing to the greatest inadequacies of the organization’s most inadequate person. Intentional or not – and Van Wagenen is exceedingly sharp, so assume what you will – merely the sense of constant action, however real it may be, is new and exciting and fun, words and feelings rarely associated with the Mets.
Involvement in these sorts of discussions – getting Edwin Díaz and Robinson Canó from the Seattle Mariners and now targeting the best catcher in baseball – isn’t the Mets’ style, at least the Mets of recent vintage. Overhauling a roster in one offseason in an attempt to win is bold and interesting and difficult to pull off in practice – and that hasn’t dissuaded Van Wagenen one bit.
The most important question, of course, is not excitement or social engagement or calls to Joe and Evan on WFAN saying the Mets are finally back. It’s whether this makes the Mets better, and that’s dubious. Van Wagenen has increased his interest in other pitchers available in trades over the last few days, multiple executives familiar with the conversations told Yahoo Sports, and when the reports about the potential three-way deal first popped Monday, those involved in the talks nodded their heads.
It’s not that Van Wagenen is doing anything particularly novel. GMs hatch Plan A, B, C and well on down the alphabet, contingencies for every scenario, and one in which the Mets give up three seasons of Syndergaard for two of Realmuto is possible. Roadblocks exist. Just because Van Wagenen is open-minded doesn’t mean Wilpon would be comfortable with the idea of Syndergaard showing up on a back page in pinstripes after a brilliant start.
What stands out most to officials across the league is his aggressiveness. Van Wagenen is a veteran negotiator whose job every offseason was to make deals, and what got him the job, among other things, was that he thought the Mets could win now. Even with a four-year contract, he scoffed at the rebuild strategy clearly at his disposal and pivoted toward trying to win in a division with three good teams already.
It’s bold, just like the idea of trading Syndergaard for Realmuto and dealing prospects to backfill the rotation. And, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, the likelihood of it happening isn’t great. Three-way deals are notoriously difficult to pull off. The market for Realmuto is strong. And the Marlins, after what’s looking increasingly like a debacle of a return for Christian Yelich last season, have been asking for the sun, the moon, the stars, the eight planets and a Pluto To Be Named Later for him.
Still, the organization that has bred contempt among those who love it with inaction suddenly is in the middle of all of it, and that may be right, and it may be wrong, but it is something, and for those used to nothing, it feels like everything. It’s easy to get excited about the Mets right now, because they feel like the only team in baseball doing something. Before word of the Realmuto discussions went public, the first day of the Winter Meetings consisted of Billy Hamilton agreeing to terms with the Kansas City Royals and Tyson Ross signing with the Detroit Tigers. Nothing says hot stove like a couple teams that could lose 100 games.
In the meantime, the New York Yankees have discussed trading for a 100-mph-throwing, front-of-the-rotation-type starting pitcher, and they were relegated to second fiddle on the back page of Tuesday’s New York Post. That’s what the Mets have done. And while this is Van Wagenen’s first act, it’s been an awfully canny one.
Over the next five years, Van Wagenen will prove his mettle in something far more difficult than sending signal flares and watching them get treated like they’re fireworks. He’ll see whether this works or doesn’t, whether he wins or doesn’t, and even if the pettiness of how the attention paid to the Mets compares to that of the team in the Bronx, the realest thing about them, one that they never can fake, will be the ultimate judge: their record.
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