Esposito: Mets New Boss Not Same As The Old Boss

The lyric Roger Daltrey sang with The Who has been quoted many times wherever there is a new hire just about anywhere in the public forum, but in the case of the Mets’ signing of their newest General Manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, you can’t really say, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Because when Mets COO Jeff Wilpon admitted he wanted to “think outside the box” in considering a new head of the organization, he really did so and practically painted a new box.

The new boss comes from the other side of the negotiating table. Van Wagenen has been the co-head of the baseball division of CAA – Creative Artists Association – one of the leading representative agencies in the sports and entertainment industries. Since 2006, Van Wagenen has led his clients into deals totaling over $2 billion dollars, including contracts for Robinson Cano (10 years, $240 million), Ryan Zimmerman (6 yrs., $100 million), and the deals many Mets fans are fully aware for Yoenis Cespedes – at first a three-year deal for $75 million, and then after an opt-out, a four-year deal for $110 million.

Forbes has reported Van Wagenen earned some $25 million in commissions in the last year alone.

So why take a major pay cut, move your family across the country from the always sunny Southern California, and welcome the challenge of being responsible for wins and losses in a market that never lets baseball fade from its daily consciousness?

Van Wagenen firmly declared in an afternoon presser at Citi Field, “This was not about the finances.”

He gave a quick chuckle when asked if the hardest sales job was to his wife for agreeing to such a big pay cut, but he genuinely was up to the rigors of a GM’s job responsibilities.

“I think the compensation aspect of this is a little laughable to me,” Van Wagenen said after the press conference to his “new clients,” or rather, “critics,” the media. “Not everyone knows what an agent makes. there’s a lot of people involved in supporting what players make on and off the field and no single agent is responsible for all of that. This was about being a part of a new community, embarking on new challenges, and accomplishing new goals.”

The first goal will be to avoid the many conflicts that arise from first representing the players he once ushered to now engaging them into new team-friendly deals going forward. Van Wagenen made sure he gave each of his clients a heads-up to where he was headed and he received their endorsements. He counts among his 19 current, or rather, now former, clients – Cespedes, Todd Frazier, Jason Vargas, Brandon Nimmo, Tim Tebow, and a certain righthander arguably headed toward his first Cy Young Award, Jacob deGrom.

Van Wagenen made headlines this past summer when all of the talk regarding possibly trading deGrom led to his sort-of ultimatum of sign-him or trade-him decree. Instead, the Mets do not have to do either right now, as deGrom is under team control for two more seasons. However, it would be in their best interests to eat up some of his impending arbitration years and first few years of free agency with a long term deal soon.

Or not.

Van Wagenen will recuse himself from these negotiations, unless the decision is to trade deGrom for a boatload of prospects in the near future or next year or so. (Spoiler alert: He’s not planning on any such move. “Jacob deGrom is an incredible talent and I hope to keep him for a long time.”)

However, whether he’s in the room or not, who else would know more about what deGrom feels he needs for a new deal?

Wilpon made sure he had the blessing of both Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA head Tony Clark before going forward with this hire, and indicated there are clauses sewed into Van Wagenen’s contract which prohibit any possible conflicts of interest. Clark voiced concerns, but he didn’t fully stand in the way.

It was Wilpon who first broached the idea of bringing Van Wagenen aboard from a breakfast meeting he head with the agent toward the end of the season. His name was added to a list of about 40 the team had compiled as possible candidates, and that was whittled down to a dozen from which they solicited interviews. Not every potential candidate chose to be considered, saying essentially, thanks, but no thanks, but there was at least one candidate who interviewed who would have even broken the gender barrier.

Kim Ng, a longtime baseball executive fully endorsed by none other than Hall of Famer Joe Torre, interviewed, but didn’t make the final cut of three – well known baseball executive Doug Melvin, Tamp Bay Rays Asst. GM Chaim Bloom, and Van Wagenen.

Wouldn’t that have been something, to have the first major league baseball organization being run by a woman, but it sounds like the Van Man piqued Wilpon’s interests from that first breakfast.

“We hired our first choice,” said Wilpon. “He’s going to bring some excitement, a different look to things than we’ve had from traditional general managers and he’s got the full support of ownership behind him, and he’s going to bring a sustainable winner. We’re really energized by this and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for years to come.”

Of course Van Wagenen, 44, expressed what literally every GM announces upon their hiring.

“We will win now, and we will win in the future. We’re going to develop a winning culture and a winning mindset, and we will deliver this city and fan base a team they can be proud of.”

Van Wagenen, accompanied by his wife, Molly, and two of their three children to the press conference, does have a baseball background. Although he didn’t play major league ball, he did play rightfield for Stanford University (and a teammate of current Astros skipper A.J. Hinch) until he dislocated his right shoulder on a ball thrown by Randy Flores. And here’s that irony – he later represented Flores when the pitcher made The Show.

BTW, Molly also went to Stanford, and is a step-daughter to American hero astronaut Neil Armstrong, who passed away several years ago.

After graduating Stanford in 1996, Van Wagenen interned with the Chicago Bulls, where he ended up handling ticket sales and planning events. He eventually worked with an agency called Athletes Direct, where he got a better understanding of representing athletes, and brought in hundreds of players from all sports.

A dozen years ago came the CAA affiliation, where he has earned overwhelming respect from virtually everyone he has worked with, not only the players, but the teams he has negotiated with. Words like genuine, knowledgeable, even-tempered, polite, and convincing keep popping up in descriptions of his characteristics.

Mets fans have to hope that all of those characteristics will lead him toward creating a viable roster for 2019. All Mets fans can recite by rote what the needs are – a big bat, a better catcher, and a better bullpen to name a few.

Of course, there will soon be a long laundry list of free agents to ponder, but a budget is still a budget, and while Van Wagenen declared he will consider “every free agent,” there is still a payroll to consider. Both Van Wagenen and Wilpon stated the new GM will have full autonomy, but history tells us that it will not be likely the team goes after the really big ticket players.

That said, there’s more than one way to build a winning club, and not just by spending the greatest amount of money – despite what the Red Sox just proved with their World Series win and the highest payroll – so there’s no other option than to give Van Wagenen the time to evaluate and evolve the roster.

Van Wagenen may have one character as his best feature in reconstructing a winning team– relationships. His reputation emphasizes that he has positive relationships with many, many players, and as a result of his various negotiations, good relationships with every team. Many industries are built on relationships, so those positive connections can at least start the conversations that can lead to good trading partners and free agent acquisitions.

The rest, of course, is all dollars and cents. You spend the dollars if it makes sense.

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