In the aftermath of the Braves closing out the World Series — and shutting the lights on Major League Baseball for the foreseeable future — Nov. 2, the Mets’ wish list for a return to contention in the NL East sounded as unrealistic as anything any of us have ever uttered on Santa’s lap.
Bring us a general manager — preferably not a former agent or anyone with a penchant for doing really dumb things at any point in his past or at any point in the future!
And we also want an ace pitcher — ohhh, and make it a future Hall of Famer, and make it Max Scherzer!
Oh and give us a really good, experienced manager too — like Buck Showalter!
Considering how last year went for the Mets — spending more days in first place than any sub-.500 team and, we presume, dismissing more general managers than any team that spent more days in first place on its way to finishing under .500 — simply getting the first item on their wish list would have been enough to declare the winter’s shopping spree a successful one.
But somehow, for the previously star-crossed and budget-conscious Mets, agreeing to terms with general manager Billy Eppler Nov. 18 marked just the beginning of a whirlwind gift-collecting excursion, not the end of it. After officially signing Scherzer to a three-year, $130 million deal hours before the owners locked out the players Dec. 2, the Mets completed their overhaul Saturday, when owner Steve Cohen announced he’d hired Showalter.
The Mets, who needed legitimacy at every level of the organization after the final decade of the Wilpon era and a treacherous first season under Cohen, are a parallel universe Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, coming home for the holidays to discover they’ve got food, jobs and pets with heads. And it’s hard to believe given not just the Mets’ history of ill-advised hires and free agent forays, but what transpired — or didn’t transpire — during the first six weeks of their off-season.
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Throughout October and early November, the Mets were rejected by more than a dozen president of baseball operations or general manager candidates — from the longest of long shots (Theo Epstein was never coming to a market that wouldn’t grant him a permanent honeymoon) to dream candidates (the Brewers wouldn’t let David Stearns interview and Billy Beane again declined a chance to leave Oakland) and every little-known smaller market executive in between (seriously, check out this list).
The Mets appeared ready to hire Adam Cromie, who left the Nationals front office in 2017 to become a lawyer, before hiring Eppler, who never presided over a winning team in five seasons as the Angels’ general manager from 2016 through 2020. But after the unearned strut of Brodie Van Wagenen and the learning-on-the-job awkwardness of Zack Scott, the presence of a front office veteran accustomed to working with impetuous owners, well-known superstars and high-profile managers should be just what the Mets need.
Eppler picked up some pretty good secondary gifts in his first major signings as general manager when the Mets inked agreed to terms with the trio of Mark Canha, Eduardo Escobar and Starling Marte to deals worth a total of $123.5 million on Black Friday. And while the Scherzer and Showalter splashes go on Eppler’s resume as well, those deals are much more about Cohen recognizing the lessons he learned in his first season as an owner.
Money doesn’t buy championships, but it proves the seriousness of an organization and purchases plenty of insurance. Signing Scherzer was always the one thing the Mets could do to achieve both objectives, especially with Jacob deGrom’s availability for 2022 and beyond decidedly murky due to the arm injuries that ended his 2021 season and the opt-out he could exercise following next season.
For Cohen, finding the money to sign Showalter to what is believed to be the richest managerial contract in Mets history — the previous record was Art Howe’s $9.4 million deal — is the equivalent of the rest of us digging into the change jar to buy a cup of coffee. But in deviating from the norms of the Mets (seriously, Howe signed that contract 19 years ago) and most of their peers when it comes to compensating and valuing managers, Cohen proved he wasn’t kidding at his introductory press conference in November 2020, when he said he didn’t like people learning on his dime.
Showalter opened his career as a polarizing figure — he was either the detailed tactician the Yankees and Diamondbacks needed as they rebuilt/built from scratch or the suffocating presence who could only lead those teams so far — and a quick check of Twitter Saturday revealed plenty of skeptics wondering if the 65-year-old can handle the analytical and “collaborative” facets of managing in 2022. But it won’t take long in 2022 for Showalter, whose teams have never lacked for professionalism or preparation, to underscore the Mets’ newfound legitimacy in a way even Scherzer couldn’t.
That is, of course, if there is baseball in 2022. Even at the end of a historic shopping spree, the Mets have to warily eye those stocking hanging above the fireplace, hoping they’re filled with socks and not coal.