VAN WITH THE PLAN

Burn­ing ques­tions fac­ing Mets cen­ter on new GM

New York Daily News - - SPORTS - BY DEESHA THOSAR

Not so far down the list of great Amer­i­can pas­times, be­yond base­ball and bar­be­cues and lot­tery scratch-offs, is an old-fash­ioned sum­mer fire­works show. Fire­works are a funny thing — most of the fun is in the anticipation, the ex­pec­ta­tion. You light the fuse, run for cover and de­light in the pop. Then it’s over and you’ve lost 95 games, good for fourth in the East.

As the Mets head to spring train­ing, we still have time for anticipation.

New gen­eral man­ager Brodie Van Wa­ge­nen amassed an as­sort­ment of fire­works through­out the off­sea­son since he was hired in October. The 44-year-old for­mer co-head of CAA’s base­ball di­vi­sion brought new faces to Flush­ing, in­clud­ing Ed­win Diaz, Robin­son Cano, Wilson Ramos, Jed Lowrie and Justin Wilson, while reac­quir­ing Jeurys Fa­milia. Ob­serv­ing how the new Mets staff works to­gether will be the watch party of the sea­son. But the key to turn­ing around the Mets’ eight los­ing sea­sons over the past 10 years will be an­swer­ing some ques­tions, both new and old, as they head into the 2019 sea­son. HOW WILL BRODIE’S FIRST TRY FARE?

Van Wa­ge­nen is un­apolo­get­i­cally set­ting a new stan­dard that the squad in Flush­ing is the one to beat in the NL East, which is an in­spir­ing di­rec­tion ... for now. The sea­son holds huge ex­pec­ta­tions with the most ag­gres­sive vi­sion Mets fans are wit­ness­ing in years. Since stat­ing they are the “fa­vorites in the di­vi­sion,” Van Wa­ge­nen has be­come only more tena­cious in his ef­fort to rally a club in des­per­ate need of a flip of for­tune.

Mets fans have rea­son to be wary of a fic­tion that el­e­vates Noah Syn­der­gaard from an Avengers car­i­ca­ture to LeBron James, but for base­ball. Van Wa­ge­nen filled nec­es­sary holes with­out sign­ing a big-mar­ket player — and yes, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper re­main un­signed. He has never run or worked for an MLB team. He sold play­ers like Diaz, Cano, Ramos and Lowrie on the in­vented prom­ise of an au­then­tic spirit. That’s not to say the team he put to­gether will have a hard time swelling the win col­umn.

In 2018, Diaz was both an All-Star closer for the Mariners and the AL Mar­i­ano Rivera Re­liever of the Year – join­ing Craig Kim­brel, Zack Britton, An­drew Miller, Greg Hol­land, among oth­ers. The 24-year-old Diaz led the league in saves (57) and games fin­ished (65), ex­em­pli­fy­ing his ca­pac­ity to be the Mets’ work­horse in a field of no­to­ri­ous tum­ble­weeds.

Is it the slew of new play­ers added to a team that has shown flashes of suc­cess that’s mak­ing Van Wa­ge­nen so con­fi­dent? What is he see­ing that we don’t yet? WILL THE WILPONS LET BRODIE BE?

Fred and Jeff Wilpon are known, grudg­ingly to Mets fans, to ap­prove every per­son­nel move on a case-by-case ba­sis. Their check­book is closed and their small-mar­ket over­sight is a stick in the mud. This is not news to any­one who fol­lows base­ball in this area, but the Wilpons’ re­cent re­la­tion­ship with Van Wa­ge­nen may come as a sur­prise.

Thus far, the Wilpons have let Van Wa­ge­nen han­dle the reins by first at­tract­ing, then sign­ing ath­letes slightly above the cat­e­gory of cheap free agents.The Mets en­ter 2019 with im­pact play­ers who have a shot at con­tend­ing with the re­vamped Phillies, Na­tion­als and Braves. Bad own­ers can some­times do good things, and Van Wa­ge­nen is the man who has spent time ne­go­ti­at­ing with them.

His for­mer Mets clients with CAA in­clude Ja­cob deGrom, Noah Syn­der­gaard, Yoe­nis Ce­s­pedes, Todd Fra­zier, Robert Gsell­man, Tim Te­bow and Justin Dunn. It’s pos­si­ble the Wilpons are back­ing off from a hands-on ap­proach due to the trust they al­ready have in Van Wa­ge­nen. Though, at the end of the day, the Wilpons were ex­tremely on-brand

in hir­ing Van Wa­ge­nen as their newest GM due to his al­liances with the fam­ily. Sev­eral months will tell if Van Wa­ge­nen is the pre­scrip­tion for the Wilpons’ short-sight­ed­ness. WILL NUM­BERS FI­NALLY DO THE TALK­ING?

The Mets are the di­nosaur squint­ing into the spread­sheet. They are one of the league’s last teams to beef up their an­a­lyt­ics depart­ment with a hand­ful of off­sea­son hires – in­clud­ing Adam Gut­tridge to the newly cre­ated po­si­tion of “as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager of sys­tem­atic de­vel­op­ment.”

Gut­tridge worked for the Brew­ers as the man­ager of base­ball re­search and de­vel­op­ment and be­gan his MLB ca­reer by con­sult­ing for the Rock­ies. Gut­tridge co-founded Nor­mal­ized Em­pir­i­cal In­di­vid­ual Fore­cast­ing In­dex (NEIFI), a player eval­u­a­tion firm that of­fers ad­vanced tal­ent as­sess­ments to all lev­els of pro­fes­sional base­ball. He has spo­ken at the MIT Sloan Sports An­a­lyt­ics Con­fer­ence and has taught at New York Uni­ver­sity.

At the end of Jan­uary, the Mets hired long­time Base­ball Prospec­tus writer Rus­sell Car­leton and NEIFI mem­ber and xS­tats cre­ator An­drew Per­petua. Car­leton au­thored “The Shift: The Next Evo­lu­tion in Base­ball Think­ing,” re­leased in 2018, in ad­di­tion to act­ing as a ma­jor an­a­lyt­i­cal source for the league. Per­petua joined Gut­tridge’s NEIFI last April and used Stat­cast data to project player per­for­mance.

Al­ready, this is a con­sid­er­able up­grade to for­mer GM Sandy Alder­son’s in­fa­mous three­man band in the Mets an­a­lyt­ics depart­ment, prov­ing even the Wilpons are not above adapt­ing to base­ball’s num­ber-heavy trans­for­ma­tion. This could be the change that over­takes the own­er­ship’s scru­tiny of play­ers based off bias and pref­er­ence alone. Num­bers don’t lie, and if they pro­duce fruit­ful re­sults, maybe the Mets will fi­nally stick to a suc­cess­ful for­mula. WHO’S ON FIRST?

It’s the cor­ner of the Mets’ in­field tak­ing re­sumes and eval­u­at­ing per­for­mance, but who will step up for the job? On pa­per, Todd Fra­zier is more likely to be the Mets’ Open­ing Day first base­man for his spe­cific skillset. He’s played 96 games at first, sec­ond-most af­ter pa­trolling third base for the ma­jor­ity of his ca­reer. What’s un­clear is Fra­zier’s de­sire for the spot.

Peter Alonso is the most in­trigu­ing player to watch in the spring. The 6-foot-2, 245 pound 24-year-old will re­ceive the op­por­tu­nity to bat­tle with Fra­zier for first base. Alonso was the Mets’ 2016 sec­ond-round draft pick and is ranked as the club’s No. 2 prospect be­hind short­stop An­dres Gimenez. Alonso’s pro­duc­tion at the plate makes him one of base­ball’s top of­fen­sive prospects. The Florida na­tive broke out for 36 home runs across two mi­nor-league lev­els last sea­son, then added six with 27 RBI in the Ari­zona Fall League. If his de­fense has im­proved, there’s a good chance the Mets will take a chance on Alonso this year. WHO WILL EMERGE AS THE METS’ OF­FEN­SIVE FORCE?

The team is lack­ing a real power-hit­ter. When one con­tem­plates the strength of the Mets, the pitch­ing staff in­dis­putably stands out. But which player has the po­ten­tial to con­sis­tently hit for power?

My money is on Con­forto – who’s al­ready prov­ing he’s ready to lead this team.

Aside from Jeff McNeil, who lured fans back into their seats at Citi Field for the fi­nal two months of last sea­son, Con­forto had one of the best sec­ond halves on the team. He pro­duced an .895 OPS with 17 homers af­ter the All-Star Game. The 25-year-old al­ready has fans pulling for him af­ter hit­ting two home runs in Game 4 of the 2015 World Se­ries, and an­other against Zack Greinke in the NLDS that same year. If Con­forto is fully re­cov­ered from the pe­cu­liar tear in his shoul­der that side­lined him two years ago, he might be the Mets miss­ing piece that has been am­bling in Flush­ing all along.

De­spite all the ad­just­ments this off­sea­son, the Mets will at­tempt to an­swer these ques­tions and more when they con­gre­gate in Port St. Lucie this week. Van Wa­ge­nen has lit the fire­cracker in the mid­dle of the cul de sac. Now, it’s on the play­ers to pro­vide the spark.

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