Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Real Work Lies Ahead

In my last post, I shared some thoughts on the current punditry that the New York Mets organization has reverted to WILPON ERA DYSFUNCTION. Especially amusing was the idea that the value of the Mets had "gone backward significantly," with Steve Cohen's tweets a significant contributor to that drop in value. This was a ludicrous statement from an unnamed "former MLB executive." The Mets organization has indeed made some serious, high-profile blunders since Cohen took over. Still, the Mets are a viable franchise in the country's largest (by far) sports market. There's a difference between temporary setbacks and long-term trends that would hurt the franchise's value as a whole.

Don't get me wrong. Cohen didn't do himself any favors by trying to out the source of that infamous quote in Mike Puma's article. It's likely that Cohen himself, in hindsight, would have passed on making that emotional reaction. However, I'm sure that he fully understands that the Mets need to succeed in finding the elusive President of Baseball Operations that they whiffed on last winter. The Mets can't continue to flounder around as an organization as they have this year. A strong hand needs to be hired to take the wheel going forward.

I outlined in my last piece why it would be challenging to lure a young executive like the Brewers' David Stearns, Cleveland's Mike Chernoff, or the Rays' Erik Neander — three of the prominent names linked to the Mets executive search. In a nutshell, they're already at or near the top of their profession, making an excellent living and doing their jobs in markets with far fewer media outlets and outside pressure. Barring some sort of catastrophic public scandal in their personal lives, it's hard to see any of these guys not working for their respective organizations for as long as they desire. Moreover, there is no guarantee that any of these clubs will give the Mets permission to talk to them.

Provided that the Mets do indeed receive permission to speak with someone they really like, it would likely take a contract rich in both dollars and years to overcome whatever trepidation their target might have about job security in the New York market. In the case of Billy Beane or Theo Epstein, Cohen will have to be willing to offer an ownership stake similar to the 4% of the A's Beane currently holds. With all due respect to the Oakland franchise, a similar percentage of the Mets would be worth much more. Needless to say, the Mets better make the correct choice in whoever they hire for the job. It won't be a simple matter to change course if things don't work out.

One former executive whose name hasn't come up all that often is former GM and PBO of the Houston Astros Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow wasn't directly implicated in the infamous trash can lid scandal, but he didn't do anything to stop it, either. He was suspended by MLB and subsequently fired by Astros owner Jim Crane. Luhnow has always claimed to have known nothing about the cheating. Even if he didn't, as the man running everything, he certainly should have.

Most of the names closely tied to cheating are getting second chances. A.J. Hinch has been hired to manage the Detroit Tigers. Alex Cora is back running the Red Sox. This despite both actually being in the dugout while the cheating was happening, with Cora actively participating in it. What's really working against Luhnow is that he's never really taken responsibility for his failure in allowing the cheating to go on for so long, and he wasn't well-liked in the game.

Luhnow has some definite qualifications for the Mets job. He enjoyed success in rebuilding the Astros. He came from the Cardinals organization before that, which has sustained success in a market that isn't very large. It would seem that Luhnow might be a reasonable target for the Mets if they fail to land Beane, Epstein, Stearns, or any of their other top targets.

On the other hand, maybe his stubbornness in seeing himself as a victim and not taking responsibility for what went down in Houston argues against the likelihood of Jeff Luhnow thriving in this overheated media market. However, I would be surprised if the Mets didn't at least talk with the man. His time away from the game may have given him a better perspective on things with the Astros. A longshot for sure, but an interesting one.

Since I began writing this post a few days ago, Joel Sherman wrote a piece for the New York Post that touched on the possibility of the Mets hiring Luhnow. Sherman did an excellent job summarizing Luhnow's qualifications for the position and also the case against hiring him:
[Luhnow] is, in many ways, the ideal candidate for the Mets’ president of baseball operations job. He almost certainly would speak the same business and financial language as owner Steve Cohen. Cohen has insisted he does not want to train someone on his dime to do this job. Luhnow would need no training. But the Mets, more than any team, need not to associate right now with scandal, considering their persistent dysfunction. And Luhnow’s history has consisted of being too near third rails, if not standing right on them.

One reason he has not received another MLB job opportunity was that he made so few friends in the game. Luhnow brought a corporate culture, the likes of which MLB had never experienced before, to the Astros’ baseball operations. It was methodical, efficient and competent. But also ruthless and without empathy.

Luhnow had a reputation for not treating people well. The Astros often acted near or beyond the lines when it came to rules, and their feel for people was poor. A culture formed and from that culture, among other things, came the sign stealing and an assistant GM who taunted female reporters while praising alleged domestic abuser Roberto Osuna — a reliever who was only an Astro because they saw his talent without enough concerns about what his presence said. Also, Houston might have been Ground Zero for pitchers illegally weaponizing extreme sticky substances.

Cohen spoke at his initial press conference last year about winning the right way, and Jeff Luhnow hasn't had the career that would fit that description. Luhnow's poor reputation for treating people who worked under him wouldn't make him a good choice for the type of collaborative work environment that Cohen and Alderson have spoken of as a goal for the Mets.

Creating a space where talented people want to work is more than just touchy-feely thinking. There was a terrific article by Joe Lemire in the New York Times about title inflation in the game. Basically, the once-coveted title of club GM has become overshadowed by more corporate designations such as PBO. While this partly exists to protect team executives from being poached by other clubs, the departments these men are running are much larger and more complex than they used to be. (Much more on this in a future post.)

Running a club isn't a one-man job anymore, and an executive like Luhnow with a bad reputation for treating his people would be a detriment towards building out an exceptional front office. This, and also his reputation for questionable ethics, explain Luhnow's continued absence from the game. Getting back to the Mets' job, at best Luhnow would be a controversial hire, and controversy of any kind is something Steve Cohen and Sandy Alderson likely wish to avoid. Besides the team's failure on the field in 2021, the organization has had several controversial, highly publicized blunders since Cohen and Alderson took over.

  • Jared Porter, the newly hired GM, turned out to be a serial harasser of women.

  • Former manager Mickey Callaway, hired by Alderson in his previous turn as Mets GM, was outed as an even worse example of that behavior.

  • Acting GM Zack Scott was arrested for pulling a Tony La Russa — falling asleep drunk at a traffic light. (Apparently, you actually have to be La Russa to get away with this action repeatedly.)

Look, I thought the Mets took a real beating on this stuff while previous employers of Scott (Boston, Chicago, and Arizona) and Callaway (Cleveland) got off practically scot-free. While Callaway was indeed guilty of despicable behavior with the Mets, Scott's documented transgressions took place while working for the Chicago Cubs. The latter barely gets mentioned in all of these pieces. That's somewhat unfair, but there is a reason why this has come down so harshly on the Mets.

The Mets should have done a better job in vetting Porter before they hired him. They clearly need to work hard on treating female employees and women who come into contact with their employees better. They can't afford any slip-ups in this area for the foreseeable future if they hope to alter their poor perception in this area.

As for Zack Scott, people sometimes get really drunk and do idiotic stuff. Scott will pay a high price for his mistake, maybe even losing his job. But is Scott's screwup really a component of systemic dysfunction, as it's been portrayed in multiple media outlets locally and nationally? The tendency to lump everything together and say that it proves something about the current state of the Mets strikes me as somewhat of a reach. Don't get me wrong, I think the Mets organization needs to tighten things up considerably. I just don't believe that the stuff that happened under the Wilpons is lingering into the Cohen era.

I think that Cohen and Alderson got started late, and some mistakes were made due to that. It's indisputably true that hiring the right person to lead baseball operations is critical to the Mets' future. If they can't get any of the names they desire the most, they'll need to be creative in finding talent outside of the most obvious places. What can't happen is another year where there is the perception that the Mets front office is patched together with Bondo and duct tape. To ensure long-term stability, the person running the show must be seen as more than just a stopgap selection.

The Mets go into this winter facing crucial questions as to which players they will retain and which to acquire. I'm sure that we'll be discussing that often in future posts. But frankly, the most crucial question at this point is whether the Mets truly possess a core of talent that can be transformed into a contender, or whether at least a short-term teardown is in order. They'll need to keep Jacob deGrom on the mound and pitching effectively to have any hope of competing over the next couple of seasons.

What can't happen again is trading a well-regarded first-round pick like Pete Crow-Armstrong for a rental player and plummeting out of the playoff race as the Mets did this season. I understood the rationale behind making the deal at the deadline, but I still felt like it wouldn't be enough to save a club that was already struggling in so many areas, and it wasn't. If the Mets wanted Javier Báez for next year and beyond, they could have pursued him as a free agent after the season. What the Mets hope to do — build out their farm system while trying to sustain winning — is simply not easy to do. They can't afford to shed assets for dubious returns. Even though he's been quite good, the Mets will finish below .500.

While making fewer high-profile mistakes will undoubtedly help the perception of the Mets organization around baseball, only building a consistent winner on the field will ultimately do the job. The Mets can't afford to go into next season with another temporary front office, no matter how many potential targets fall by the wayside. There has to be a fully qualified long-term person in place to make all of the critical decisions that await this winter and beyond while continuing to build out the team infrastructure that languished in the Wilpon years.

It's not going to be an easy job. Some mistakes are inevitable. Second- and third-guessing will be continuous and ongoing. Along with brains, thick skin and an ample supply of the headache reliever of choice will also be required. I'm sure the job will be quite highly compensated, but the intangible rewards of bringing a winner home to a fanbase that has waited for so long and endured so much will be plentiful, also. This may well be one tough place to work, but Mets fans forever revere those who played a part in winning it all for them.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

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