Brodie Van Wagenen's first big trade has proven to be first-half flop for Mets
The Brodie Files series takes a look at the first-year Mets’ GM’s moves. Here’s Part I:
It was bold.
It also backfired.
Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen’s win-now blockbuster trade for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz during the offseason has proven to be an unmitigated disaster to date.
“I think that most Mets fans wake up defeated,” Van Wagenen told SI back in April. “I wanted Mets fans to wake up with the belief that winning is the only outcome they can expect.”
So far, nothing has changed in that respect. The Mets find themselves at 40-50, fourth place in the NL East and 13.5 games back of division-leading Atlanta.
And the first-half failures of both Cano and Diaz are a significant reason why.
The duo heads into the All-Star break with a combined bWAR of negative-1.2. Each has been booed vociferously at Citi Field — with Cano hearing the Bronx cheers in Queens pretty much on the regular.
Cano, 36, is slashing .240/.287/.360 for a .646 OPS with four homers, 18 RBIs and 21 extra-base hits, while Diaz, 25, is 1-6 with a 5.50 ERA, having gone 19-for-23 in save opportunities with seven homers allowed.
And to get the declining middle-of-the-order bat (Cano) and shaky closer who could end up losing his job (Diaz), the Mets dealt their top prospect, outfielder Jarred Kelenic, to the Mariners along with pitching prospect Justin Dunn, veteran Jay Bruce, reliever Anthony Swarzak and minor-league reliever Gerson Bautista.
“This trade should be a signal to our players and our fans that words alone will not define this franchise,” Van Wagenen said at the time.
But, as it turns out, three words have defined the Mets in 2019: Van Wagenen’s spring-training declaration — “Come get us.”
Making matters even worse, Kelenic (15 HRs, cumulative .929 OPS at A-ball), 20, and Dunn (3.82 ERA, 96 Ks in 75.1 IP at Double-A), 23, both appeared in Sunday’s MLB Futures Game.
Meanwhile, Bruce (24 homers) has been a Met Killer since being dealt to Philadelphia, while Swarzak found success with Atlanta (1 ER in 17 games) before going on the injured list.
“New GMs usually aren’t proactive initially because you don’t know your system that well — the players, the personnel, the staff — and you make a lot of mistakes early,” one scout, in looking back on the deal, told Yahoo Sports.
“I understand that Brodie felt going in that he had the starting pitching to win and needed to upgrade the offense — which he did though he never found a centerfielder and the catcher (Wilson Ramos) has just been OK — and he needed to improve the bullpen which was a mess.
“Diaz coming off his year (1.96 ERA, 57 saves, All-Star) was a guy that fit that criteria. But Cano was a really, really bad move because he was coming off the suspension, at his age with that contract — you’d have to be crazy to want to pick him up. (Brodie’s) relationship with Cano clouded his vision, and they’re going to pay for it.”
Cano, whose former agent was Van Wagenen, had five years and $120 million left on his 10-year, $240 million contract when the Mets picked him up, with the Mariners sending $20 million to New York as part of the package.
He has regularly remained in the No. 3 spot in the batting order despite his struggles. The Mets also didn’t discipline Cano for not hustling on multiple occasions. It’s almost as if he’s been playing under a different set of rules than the rest of his teammates.
Cano performed at the highest level with the Yankees, and his occasional loafing didn’t cause as much of a stir for most of his tenure in The Bronx as a result (granted, he was benched by Joe Girardi for that exact reason 11 years ago). But his production has diminished significantly, making his flaws that much more noticeable. He also has required a pair of stints on the IL due to quad issues.
In 70 plate appearances against left-handed pitching, Cano has produced a .490 OPS along with no homers and three RBIs. He’s gone 11-for-36 at the plate in his last 10 games, but hasn’t had an extra-base hit since June 25.
In the field, he ranks 14th among 17 second basemen who have played at least 450 innings in defensive runs saved (negative-7) and 16th in ultimate zone rating (negative-3.5).
“Kelenic’s a ways away and he’s not established yet,” said the scout, one of many who believes the Mariners have a future star in the making. “But I know the old guard that was there — Sandy (Alderson)’s people — didn’t want to make that trade.
“Brodie probably felt that he could win, and felt Cano would be pretty much back to normal, which he likely never will be.”
Cano still has four years left on his deal after 2019 — funds, a roster spot and regular playing time that would be better diverted elsewhere.
He can’t move to first with emerging rookie star Pete Alonso (30 homers) entrenched at the position, while Jeff McNeil, who leads the majors in batting average (.356), has to mostly play outfield — out of position — with Cano manning second. (McNeil was talked about in the Mets-Mariners trade but ultimately wasn’t included, with some believing the power of social media/Mets fans wisely helped influenced as much).
Diaz, who lost his closer’s job in 2017, has the far greater potential to turn things around — if, in fact, he can overcome all that has plagued him. “Brodie expected he would be lights out, and he’s just added more disappointment,” the scout said.
Last season, opponents hit .188 against Diaz’s four-seam fastball (2 HRs) and .121 against his slider (3 HRs). This season, those batting averages are up to .264 against the four-seamer (5 HRs) and .313 against the slide piece (2 HRs).
In his last 12.1 innings, Diaz has allowed 17 earned runs while opposing hitters have feasted on him to the tune of a 1.152 OPS. Lack of confidence and poor pitch location have been cited as reasons for Diaz’s stunning regression, though he’s been pretty much out of answers at this point. His usage has been constantly under a microscope, with the organization initially electing to restrict him to three outs per outing (which then became four).
On top of it all, there aren’t any viable alternatives to replace him. Not with ex-closer Jeurys Familia pitching even worse (7.50 ERA).
Van Wagenen went for it, selling ownership on the idea he could win now with this roster, and making the Cano-Diaz trade, the one GMs typically make when they feel they’re one final piece away — similar to the Cubs moving Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman in 2016, and ending their 108-year World Series title drought because of it.
But all that boldness has backfired to date.
And, as for Mets fans, well, most of the passionate ones will still wake up feeling defeated when the second half of the 2019 campaign begins on Friday.