Jacob deGrom is Brodie Van Wagenen’s gift to Mets

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Jacob deGrom treated image, side profile and pitching
Jacob deGrom treated image, side profile and pitching

When the Mets return home to face the San Diego Padres on Friday, Jacob deGrom will be on the mound, and the crowd will buzz because of it.

There is an alternate reality, one easy to imagine, in which deGrom is pitching for another team instead in the first season of an eight- or nine-year, $300 million-plus contract. And whatever you think of Brodie Van Wagenen’s two-year term as general manager, it’s only fair to remember that deGrom’s deeply discounted presence on the Mets was largely his doing.

You’ll probably still end up missing Jarred Kelenic. You might never forgive Edwin Diaz for blowing the 2019 playoff run. But GM legacies are complicated, and every DeGrom Day is Van Wagenen’s gift to the franchise and its fans.

Van Wagenen’s relationship to the five-year, $137.5 million contract that deGrom signed in 2019 is unique, to say the least.

It starts with the simple story of an agent pushing his player’s team to pony up. At the All-Star Game in 2018, Van Wagenen declared that the Mets needed to either trade or extend their ace. This was a standard bit of strategy, timed for maximum exposure, and fully endorsed by deGrom.

The same fall brought a dramatic twist. In October, Van Wagenen convinced Jeff and Fred Wilpon to let him lead baseball operations, thereby switching sides of the aisle on deGrom mid-stream.

To Van Wagenen’s credit, his rhetoric and beliefs about deGrom’s contract remained consistent from both positions: He always said that it was good for all parties for stars to be well-compensated. Upon his arrival in Queens, he worked at convincing his bosses to shell out for deGrom, who was set to become a free agent after the 2020 season.

Despite the GM’s intentions, negotiations nearly fell apart -- and probably would have if not for Van Wagenen’s deep relationships on both sides.

On the final day of spring training in 2019, the Mets were in Sarasota, Fla., to play the Orioles. Afterward, deGrom, Van Wagenen, Jeff Wilpon, and agents Jeff Berry and Matt Ricatto from CAA -- Van Wagenen’s former co-workers -- hunkered in a room for approximately nine hours to hammer out a deal.

One could probably teach a graduate course on conflicts of interest on that day, but in practicality, it was a room full of people who trusted the Mets’ GM. It was intense, with every party strongly representing its own interests, but it was also happening in good faith and with a touch of camaraderie. At one point, Van Wagenen ran to a nearby 7-11 to pick up tacos and taquitos for the group.

The deal got done. That December, the Yankees signed Gerrit Cole -- a younger but marginally less effective pitcher -- to a nine-year, $324 million contract. DeGrom immediately became the baseball bargain of the decade.

It’s impossible to know what would have happened between the Mets and deGrom had he not signed the contract. We don’t even know who the GM would have been in this alternate history (would it have been the talented Chaim Bloom, who later took over in Boston and traded Mookie Betts?).

We can tell you that there were prominent voices in the 2018 Mets front office advocating for a strategy like the Chicago White Sox followed with ace Chris Sale, trading him with several years of control left in order to replenish the farm system.

In a world without Van Wagenen, our best guess is that the Mets would have traded deGrom after the 2018 season. DeGrom would have pitched for a new team for two years, then signed a megadeal elsewhere.

Once Van Wagenen arrived with a “win now” pitch, that wasn’t happening. He then proceeded to leverage all of his relevant relationships to keep deGrom a Met -- no easy task.

The future remains uncertain. DeGrom has an opt-out after next season and new agents. He and the Sandy Alderson/Zack Scott Mets were far apart during preliminary extension talks this spring, as SNY reported at the time.

But if you’re going to the ballgame Friday night? No matter how you feel about Kelenic, Robinson Cano or Jed Lowrie, you do have Van Wagenen to thank for the starting pitcher.