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The Problem With the Mets’ Brodie Van Wagenen GM Hire

New York’s hiring of the former agent, whose recent client list includes Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard, is a troubling development that forces us to ask: What happens when someone on the side of labor becomes management?

Two images of Brodie Van Wagenen back to back YouTube/Ringer illustration

Tuesday afternoon, the New York Mets introduced their new general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, who is not the typical GM candidate. The former Stanford baseball player has never worked in an MLB front office before; in fact, before joining the Mets, he was an agent, having cofounded the baseball division of Creative Artists Agency in 2006. Van Wagenen negotiated, among other things, Robinson Canó’s 10-year deal with the Mariners in 2013 and Yoenis Céspedes’s current contract with the Mets, signed after the 2015 season.

At the time of his hiring, Van Wagenen and CAA represented numerous Mets players, including Noah Syndergaard, Robert Gsellman, Jacob deGrom, Todd Frazier, Tim Tebow, and 2016 first-rounder Justin Dunn. In fact, up until a couple of weeks ago, if you Googled “Brodie Van Wagenen Mets,” you’d find coverage of his demand, in mid-July, that the Mets either sign deGrom to a long-term contract extension or trade him to a winning team.

Van Wagenen’s hiring is controversial partially because he took an unusual path to the front office—the runner-up for the job, Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom, is more experienced and a safer pick. But it’s not unprecedented: Los Angeles Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and Warriors GM Bob Myers both jumped from an agency to the front office, as did former Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis. In MLB, Jeff Moorad, a former agent, sold his company in 1999 and five years later bought a stake in the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he served as CEO, and later fronted a group that bought the San Diego Padres. Former MLB player, coach, and front-office executive Dave Stewart went into business as an agent before he was tapped to run the Diamondbacks from 2014 to 2016.

By all indications, Van Wagenen is an intelligent, forward-thinking baseball mind who’s willing to give ownership a voice in baseball operations decisions, which is a selling point for the Wilpons, whose hands-on approach to ownership presents one of the unique challenges of building a winning Mets ballclub.

But regardless of precedent or written rules, or whether he’ll do a good job, Van Wagenen’s hiring is troubling. Either Van Wagenen, by seeking out the job, or Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon, by recruiting him, undermined the player-agent relationship. A week ago, Van Wagenen was the trusted advocate of players who could now sit across from him at the negotiating table, or one day ask him for a trade.

By MLBPA rules, Van Wagenen will lose his agent’s certification by taking a job with the Mets, and his former clients will all find new representation, either within CAA or elsewhere. Van Wagenen has already divested himself from CAA, including renouncing his share of agent’s fees from ongoing contracts he already negotiated.

Everyone on a baseball team, from the owner to the ushers, wears the same colors, but not everyone within the team is working toward the same goal all the time. Generally speaking, everyone in the organization wants to make money and win a World Series. But on an individual level, players want to make as much money as they can, given their ability, while a baseball operations department’s job is to do the opposite: get as much on-field production as it can for as little money as possible.

In this respect the relationship between player and team is like any other worker-employer relationship, and addressing that conflict over compensation causes friction between workers and management in any job. The difference between professional athletes and most workers is that athletes hire agents to advocate for them. Not only because a trained professional negotiator will be able to get more money out of management than a trained professional left-handed pitcher, but because of the added benefit of reducing the negative social effect of going out and taking orders from a boss who tried to nickel-and-dime you across the conference room table the day before.

Some agents view the struggle between labor and management as ideological. Van Wagenen, when asked in his introductory press conference about his desire to be a GM, seemed to indicate a belief that representing players and running a team are just part of the same industry.

“Like many people I grew up playing baseball, and the dream of working in baseball was something that was exciting, something you didn’t know if it could become a reality,” Van Wagenen said. “When my playing days finished, I set out on a career in professional sports with one goal: to make a positive impact on it … The opportunity to do it for players for the last 18 years has been something I’ve taken a tremendous amount of pride in. But I think that it’s an exciting time to impact the game in a different way, and now be in a position where I’m trying to win.”

That’s an understandable motivation—being an agent doesn’t challenge Van Wagenen in the same way being a GM might, and after 18 years in one job, it’s reasonable that he might want to try his hand at another. If Van Wagenen views this as leaving one glamorous, lucrative job in baseball for another, that’s his prerogative—mercenaries often make effective soldiers. But Van Wagenen’s career change presents a problem unfamiliar to most labor movements.

Scott Boras, who’s been critical of Van Wagenen’s decision to switch sides, told the New York Post that he couldn’t ask players to trust him if they knew there was a possibility he’d go work for a team someday. Boras obviously has an agenda here—CAA is his competitor, after all—but he also earned his reputation as the bane of MLB front offices by advocating effectively for his clients. And he’s right about the amount of trust players place in their agents.

At his introductory press conference, Van Wagenen said that his background as an agent gives him different insights than someone who’s worked in a front office for 20 years. That’s probably true: Van Wagenen thinks about team-building differently than most GMs, and that might be to the Mets’ benefit. But he also has different information than the average front-office employee.

“I am an attorney and I want [players] to tell me everything and a lot of these things are confidential, they are personal,” Boras told the Post, “and if I went to work for a different employer, I would have to divulge all that information because I have to do my job for that other employer I made a commitment to.”

Think about all the things in your personal life that you don’t talk about to your boss. Medical information, including mental health information, issues in your home life, legal problems, your emotional state, petty personal grievances against managers and coworkers. Modern player agencies don’t just negotiate contracts—they provide services to help players with day-to-day living, even set them up with doctors. Because an agent is a player’s advocate, a player might feel safe confiding information or sentiments in his agent that could be damaging if it reached his employers or the public.

Teams already collect personal and medical information about players far beyond what any normal American employer knows about its workers—perhaps beyond what’s necessary or appropriate. But that information was gathered with the consent of the athletes. Van Wagenen has the opportunity to hand over his former clients’ private information to the Mets without those clients’ consent. Whether he intends to reveal or act on those confidences isn’t as important as the fact that he could if he wanted or needed to; if workers could rely on the rectitude and ethics of management, we wouldn’t have needed agents or labor unions in the first place.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark addressed this issue during the World Series, while the Mets were still considering Van Wagenen as a candidate. His response hardly inspires confidence that the union has any safeguards for its players other than Van Wagenen’s own discretion.

“They understand the opportunities that exist for representatives to make the decisions that they are going to make,” Clark said. “To the extent that possibility exists, I would be confident in suggesting that the understanding and appreciation for confidential information remains so.”

The disclosure of privileged information is also a concern when executives move from team to team—in fact, when Cardinals executive Chris Correa was caught hacking into the Astros’ team database, his excuse was that he was looking for data that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow had stolen when he was hired out of the Cardinals front office.

But this situation is different for two reasons. First, front-office personnel who switch teams have to get permission from their current employers, or wait until their contract is up. If Van Wagenen got permission from every single one of his clients before interviewing for the Mets, he hasn’t said so. Second, agents are a bulwark against the structural power imbalance between players and their employers. One team stealing another’s secrets is a competitive issue, and as Correa found out, sometimes illegal. A team stealing a player’s secrets takes power from labor and gives it to management. Pelinka, Gillis, Stewart, and Myers weren’t heavily scrutinized for switching careers, but the basic potential for harm exists every time an agent switches sides.

Van Wagenen isn’t an attorney, so he’s not bound by legal prohibitions on representing a client’s adversary, or by attorney-client privilege. But FanGraphs writer Sheryl Ring, who is an attorney, suggests that Van Wagenen breached his fiduciary duty to his clients by taking a job with a team, and that the Mets might have committed tortious interference by recruiting him, though it’s unlikely that even if Van Wagenen or the Mets broke the law, anything will ever come of it.

Van Wagenen’s dealings with his former clients, deGrom most of all, will (and should) face heavy scrutiny going forward. The Mets know this, which is why, when Van Wagenen was asked about his relationship with deGrom at the press conference, COO Jeff Wilpon answered for him, telling reporters that the team had put measures in place for Van Wagenen to recuse himself from negotiations with his former clients. He declined to elaborate on what those measures might be or how they’d work.

Probably because his answer could not be more obviously horseshit. The two most important player personnel decisions the Mets have to make in the next few years are what to do with deGrom and Syndergaard—how can Van Wagenen possibly run the Mets’ baseball ops department without at least having input on those decisions? And if (when) he does make those decisions, his experience as an advocate for deGrom and Syndergaard will influence his decision-making as their employer. Van Wagenen might be a mercenary, but nobody’s mercenary enough to compartmentalize to that extent.

Van Wagenen wouldn’t have won this job if the Wilpons didn’t value his baseball acumen, leadership ability, and ease with the media. But the one thing Van Wagenen offers that Bloom and other more traditional candidates don’t is insight into the players, from broad generalities about how they think to specific information about the handful of significant Mets who employed Van Wagenen until this week. Maybe the Mets think Van Wagenen will handle players better than Bloom would have. Maybe they think deGrom and Syndergaard will be more likely to want to work for someone they like. Syndergaard and deGrom haven’t commented publicly yet, but Wilpon told reporters at the press conference that Céspedes is on board with Van Wagenen’s hiring.

It’s worth noting, however, that players tend to flock to teams that win and/or pay well, and the Wilpon-owned Mets aren’t doing much of either these days. This isn’t like a college basketball team hiring a recruit’s parent or AAU coach, because the Mets already have deGrom and Syndergaard under team control through 2020 and 2021, respectively. Schools aren’t then using the parent or coach’s insights in contract negotiations—if anything these college shenanigans, which everyone rolls their eyes at anyway, put money in the pocket of the player or someone close to him.

At best, hiring a star player’s agent to be the GM looks like dirty pool. At worst, it looks downright unethical. Maybe some players won’t mind working for their former agent, seeing him on the other side of the negotiating table, but it’s something they should worry about. If Van Wagenen does betray his former clients’ confidences to his new employer, it’s not clear what recourse the players would have. They just have to trust that he won’t.

“I won’t tell you how many calls or how many texts I have gotten,” Clark said at the World Series. “I will simply suggest to you that our membership is paying attention.”

In the press conference, Van Wagenen talked about building partnerships with players, and getting buy-in is an important part of constructing a winning baseball team. But the players need to understand that Van Wagenen is no longer their partner, no longer their advocate, but their employer and sometime adversary. The Man is always the enemy, and now The Man knows the players’ secrets.