PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — A year ago, Brodie Van Wagenen was threatening the New York Mets, demanding they sign ace Jacob deGrom to a lucrative contract extension or trade him.
Today, he wants deGrom’s extension signed by opening day, but, of course, as cheap as possible.
A year ago, he was one of the highest-profile agents in the business, acting as a fantasy-baseball owner, rooting for his players to have monster seasons to monetize their value, but having no rooting interest in a particular club.
Today, Van Wagenen is the general manager of the Mets, rooting only for his own players, and hoping that none of his former clients do particularly well against them.
Van Wagenen, brimming with bravado as an agent, has doubled down as a club executive, fearless in his beliefs, and snubbing the notion that he’s supposed to be patient as a rookie GM.
He has been an overnight back-page sensation in New York with his daring, aggressive acquisitions, and outside former NFL quarterback/Mets minor-league outfielder Tim Tebow, no one has signed more autographs than Van Wagenen.
“I don’t know why people want the GM’s autograph,’’ Mets starter Noah Syndergaard said. “It’s kind of strange to me. He’s not playing out there. Maybe if we win something it makes more sense.”
Van Wagenen, who remembers signing only one autograph as an agent — a picture from his playing days at Stanford — is embracing the attention, but believes the entire team will be as popular as Bruce Springsteen in spikes if they head where he envisions.
“I wouldn’t have made the switch from my old job to this job,’’ Van Wagenen tells USA TODAY Sports, “if I didn’t believe that we could win here, and have the support to create sustained success.
“We’re not looking to improve; we’re looking to win the World Series.
“There’d be nothing better than a Mets-Yankees World Series.’’
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Van Wagenen, 45, apparently never got the standard GM manual when he took the job. You’re supposed to preach patience to your fanbase, telling them that the farm system needs to be rebuilt, and you have a five-year plan that should allow the team to slowly be competitive again.
The last thing you ever do is create expectations.
Van Wagenen shrugs his shoulders, but isn’t about to apologize.
“The mission statement,’’ he says, “is to win now. Win in the future. And keep winning. You got to win the day. And we will.
“I feel like we can contend right now, and fully expect to.’’
The Mets haven’t won the World Series in more than three decades. They’ve had eight losing seasons in the last 10 years. They have won only two division titles since 1988. Their two highest-paid players, David Wright and Yoenis Cespedes, can’t play. Wright is retired and Cespedes is out until mid-summer with an injury.
Oh, and the highest-paid player in baseball history, Bryce Harper went to the division rival Philadelphia Phillies, and the best free-agent pitcher, Patrick Corbin, signed with the Washington Nationals.
And, yet, Van Wagenen refuses to be fazed by being in the powerful NL East, baseball’s new black-and-blue division.
“I grew up in the ‘80s where you had Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard,’’ Van Wagenen says. “The middleweight class was the most compelling weight class in the sport. It was a national event every time those guys fought.
“I feel like if this division ends up being that, I have no problem moving into the heavyweight division.’’
This is Van Wagenen, part salesman, part showman, part genius, who has made the Mets relative once again.
You want to get on the back-page of the tabloids with one simple front-office move? Try hiring ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcaster Jessica Mendoza as your baseball operations advisor, the former Olympian who will be involved in the Mets’ day-to-day decisions, but still employed by ESPN.
“I was an outside-the-box hire,’’ Van Wagenen says, “so that doesn’t scare me or bother me at all. I have a ton of respect for her intellect. I think she’ll be able to give us fresh perspective on baseball evaluations, how we think of the game, the insights she’s able to glean from watching so many baseball games. It’s almost like having another national major-league scout on the staff.’’
Conflict of interest? Please, Van Wagenen says, pointing out that the landscape is filled with broadcasters, such as Alex Rodriguez, Al Leiter, David Ross and Rick Sutcliffe who have at least advisory roles with teams.
“I’m disappointed that this idea of a conflict of interest has presented itself with her,’’ Van Wagenen says, “rather than others before her. This is not a new phenomenon. There are lot of baseball advisors in a lot of different organizations that have had access to information that the outside world doesn’t.
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“I’m not immune to the conflict of interest tag.’’
Van Wagenen was vilified by some of his own peers in the agent business, such as Scott Boras, when he joined the Mets, saying it was unfair to the players he once represented. A few months ago, deGrom was trusting Van Wagenen to get him the best long-term deal, and suddenly now is trying to get the best deal for Fred and Jeff Wilpon, who own the club.
“I really don’t want to talk about it,’’ deGrom said.
Others, represented either directly by Van Wagenen or his agency, CAA, also had mixed feelings.
“It’s good because he’s my friend,’’ Cespedes said, “but not good because he’s not my agent anymore. So, right now I don’t have anybody.
“I know he’s a very smart guy, he loves baseball, and he said he’s going to do something good for this team, but I still wish I had an agent.’’
Said Syndergaard: “We’re still in shallow waters here. I think you need that relationship with your GM to have normal conversations with, but at the same time, you have to realize he’s your boss. Your relationship changes in a professional way.’’
Van Wagenen insists any lingering awkwardness is gone. He’ll always have a bond with his former clients, he says, just like other players he knew but never represented. And he still hopes the Mets lock up deGrom.
“We know the impact that Jacob deGrom is going to have on this organization now and going forward,’’ Van Wagenen says. “That doesn’t change on this side. My job was to put players in position to be paid fairly for their work, and create partnerships with teams where they’re mutually beneficial, so they can last for a longer period of time.’’
It’s the same concept with Tebow, Van Wagenen says. Sure, he was the one who negotiated Tebow’s contract with the Mets, convincing them that he can make the transition from the NFL to the major leagues. He pointed out the glorious marketing opportunities for the Mets with Tebow simply being part of the organization.
And now that Tebow is on the threshold of the big leagues, opening the season in Triple-A, Van Wagenen still believes Tebow can do more than just sell tickets.
“This was never a publicity stunt,’’ Van Wagenen says. “This guy really had a desire and work ethic to achieve his goal of playing in the big leagues. Here we are three springs later, with a lot of bus trips and a lot of minor league at-bats, and he’s still as motivated today as he was before.
“As long as I’ve been around him, I’m not going to be the guy that says Tim Tebow can’t do this.’’
Really, it’s no different with Van Wagenen, whose public critics have also faded away, with skepticism subsiding. When you act as boldly as Van Wagenen, acquiring 2018 saves leader Edwin Diaz and former All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano from Seattle, and sign free agent infielder Jed Lowrie, catcher Wilson Ramos and relievers Jeurys Familia and Justin Wilson, you gain a whole lot of street cred.
“He’s been in baseball forever, he’s not going to have any trouble at all,’’ says Atlanta Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos, who has reached out to Van Wagenen to provide assistance. “Now, if he had been an agent in another sport it would be different. But he’s really done everything a GM does. He’s already managed people. He’s scouted and evaluated players. He’s done free agency and salary arbitration. He’s had to deal with owners and GMs.
“He has already been exposed to every aspect of the industry.’’
Maybe the only surprise, Van Wagenen says, is there have been no surprises.
“The first 30 days was a bit of a triage, as I was learning the organization from top to bottom,’’ Van Wagenen says, “but this has been more fun even than I expected. The only surprise was how welcoming the GM community has been. The agent community was pretty receptive, too. I wasn’t sure they would be comfortable dealing with me.
“But the job itself is incredibly similar to what we were doing on the agency side. …
“The difference is that the goal is not monetizing that talent, but winning baseball games.’’
Just like Van Wagenen, who now will be judged by the Mets’ win-loss record, and not the size of his clients’ paychecks.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @BNightengale