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The Mets Want to Be a Top Franchise. Their GM Search Shows They’ve Got a Ways to Go.

Steve Cohen and Sandy Alderson seem to be closing in on a new GM for the Mets. But while their goal is to elevate the club, their lengthy executive search has shown that may not be so easy to do.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After almost two months of searching, the Mets seem to have found someone to run the team: Adam Cromie. While Cromie is by no means a household name, his CV will sound familiar if you’ve ever followed an MLB front office search before. The 38-year-old came to the Nationals right out of grad school and worked his way up to assistant GM while attending law school at night. He apprenticed under Nats GM Mike Rizzo, one of the league’s most successful and respected executives, and a former colleague told the New York Post this week that “[Cromie] really feels strong about scouting. He’s smart and he knows analytics and he’s a good people person and administrative person.”

That combination of attributes—intelligence and people skills, along with expertise in both scouting and quantitative analysis—is the “proficient in Microsoft Office” of the baseball world. It’s something every job applicant puts on their résumé because these competencies are necessary for doing the job well; in order to even get a shot, an applicant has to at least be able to fake it.

It seems that all that stands between Cromie and the Mets’ GM position now is a sit-down with owner Steve Cohen. There was no formal offer as of Wednesday night, and according to team president Sandy Alderson, Cromie is not the only candidate they’re still considering. But if he passes muster, Cromie will show up at the winter meetings a year from now and be virtually indistinguishable from about 50 other GMs and assistant GMs milling about in khakis and quarter-zips. Is it an outside-the-box hire? No, but considering that the Mets are about to be on their fourth GM in the past year and haven’t had a normal front office in this century, boring might be just what the doctor ordered.

Except, nothing about this process seems to herald a return to quiet competence. Let’s start with Cromie himself. He left baseball four years ago to pursue a career in corporate law at Jones Day, one of the country’s largest firms. That name might ring a bell—the firm represented former president Donald Trump during both the 2016 and 2020 election campaigns, and the deputy chief of staff to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie in the Bridgegate case. It’s unlikely that Cromie, working in mergers and acquisitions, would’ve been involved in those cases, but the Christie link is at the very least an interesting coincidence. Christie serves on the Mets’ board of directors, and his son is the Mets’ international scouting coordinator. Cohen was also a major contributor to Christie’s ill-fated 2016 presidential bid, and he’s reportedly been consulting Christie on whom to hire to run the Mets.

Then there’s the fact that the position Cromie may be offered—general manager—is not the one Cohen originally hoped to fill when he started his search six weeks ago.

Since Cromie last worked in baseball, the sport has undergone a severe case of title bloat; while the GM was once god-emperor of the front office, many teams have chosen to install a president of baseball operations or some similarly exalted figure, with the GM as his majordomo. The “president of baseball operations” concept emerged in the mid-2010s as a way for teams to indicate a class of super GM. The best way to explain it is to list some of the early recipients of the title: Theo Epstein with the Cubs, Andrew Friedman with the Dodgers, Dave Dombrowski with the Red Sox. It implied gravitas a normal GM could not access, along with the sagacity of someone more removed from operational details.

That’s the kind of executive Cohen and team president Sandy Alderson set out to hire—a leader who could confer his own credibility on a franchise in dire need of it. That Epstein- or Dombrowski-like figure would then go on to hire a GM, a field manager, and whatever other subordinates were necessary to carry out their vision. The Mets couldn’t entice such a person to come work for them, so they lowered their ambitions and found a guy who can run the team—and perhaps run it well—under Alderson and Cohen.

It’s not a black mark against the Mets that they couldn’t get the likes of Epstein or Billy Beane to come on board; go big or go home. But the job search descended into a farce when a dozen executives refused to go work for Cohen. Some, like Brewers GM Matt Arnold, Cardinals GM Michael Girsch, and Yankees assistant GM Jean Afterman, are top assistants under well-respected presidents of baseball operations in other organizations. Others are names you’d only know if you have access to a radar gun and a fungo bat.

When he bought the Mets a year ago, Cohen talked a big game about where he wanted to take the team.

“I’m essentially doing it for the fans,” Cohen said. “When I really thought about this, I could make millions of people happy, and what an incredible opportunity that is. That’s how I’m thinking about this. I’m not trying to make money here. I have my business at Point 72, and I make money over there. So here, it’s really about building something great, building something for the fans, winning. I just find this an amazing opportunity.”

Sharp-eared observers will hear in this statement echoes of Terry Pegula’s promise when he bought the Buffalo Sabres in 2011. The natural gas billionaire pledged that money would be no object for the Sabres, saying that if he ran short on cash, “I’ll drill another well.” That went down as one of the most infamous quotes in the history of sports ownership, as Pegula’s Sabres are currently on course to miss the playoffs for an 11th-straight year, an NHL high.

Things aren’t quite so bad for the Mets. Cohen has done a better job backing up words with action than the club’s 77-85 record would indicate. The Mets ran the third-highest payroll in MLB last year, pulled off the trade heist of last offseason, and were active in both free agency and at the trade deadline. It just didn’t work. And a public that’s turned laughing at the Mets into a sport in its own right laughed all the harder when they failed again.

Coming into this offseason, the Mets not only needed new front office leadership, they needed someone who could represent a clean break from the shameful and scandal-ridden front offices of the past. That includes a GM who was fired for drunk driving; another who was fired for sexual harassment; former manager Mickey Callaway, who is currently serving a two-year suspension for sexual harassment; and a toxic culture, as described in a report from The Athletic this spring.

In this situation, the smart thing to do would be to clean house and try to build a better, more functional front office from scratch. And if I had billions of dollars to burn and a confused mess of a baseball team, I’d also try to hire Epstein, Beane, and David Stearns—people who could not only build a winning team, but validate the Mets’ position as one of baseball’s glamour franchises. The Mets aren’t the Yankees, but Cohen’s ambition is to make them Not the Yankees in the way the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cubs are Not the Yankees. To be nouveau riche, like Jay Gatsby or Cohen himself, and buy not just into baseball, but baseball’s upper class.

Here’s the Catch-22: Anyone with the credentials and reputation to fill Cohen’s needs also knows better than to get within 100 miles of this job.

The explanation for that comes in the form of a question: Do you know who owns the Los Angeles Dodgers?

You probably know that Magic Johnson is involved somehow, and avid fans will remember names like CEO Stan Kasten and Guggenheim Baseball Management. But let’s say the Dodgers wanted to hire a new GM. Which single person could, as Cohen is doing with Cromie, insist on a separate interview to confirm a decision by the team president? Even if you knew that Mark Walter was the controlling owner, can you remember him saying something that made the news? Or changing the direction of the franchise on a whim?

One could pose those same questions about the newly minted World Series champion Atlanta Braves, or the San Antonio Spurs, or Tampa Bay Lightning. By and large, successful owners set a budget and disappear until it’s time to collect a trophy. They know that a more visible, active owner can undermine the front office and breed disunity within the organization. They use their prerogative sparingly and subtly, and otherwise leave matters to their hired experts. Even Robert Kraft, the most obvious counterexample, is mostly in the news for off-the-field issues. When it comes to football, he lets Bill Belichick cook.

If the average fan knows what the owner looks like, it’s usually a bad sign. And if the average fan knows what the owner thinks about specific organizational decisions, disaster often follows. Consider how much Jerry Jones meddles with the Dallas Cowboys, or Tilman Fertitta with the Houston Rockets, or the lamented Pegula with the Sabres. There was a time when a Jones or a George Steinbrenner or Ed Snider could put his mittens in the stew and win anyway by sheer force of financial will. But that time has come and gone.

Could someone like Epstein, or Stearns, or Rays GM Erik Neander turn the Mets into a superpower, given this roster and Cohen’s resources? Undoubtedly. But that class of executive wants—and, frankly, has earned—the right to final say over baseball operations decisions.

That’s not going to happen with Alderson, who’s still in the picture as team president, hovering over every decision, nor will it happen with Alderson’s son, Bryn, also high up in the power structure as assistant GM. Not with Cohen polling Twitter about contract extension talks with the team’s franchise shortstop, like Elon Musk begging crypto Twitter to giggle at a double entendre. And definitely not when even Alderson’s decisions—such as the Cromie hiring—have to be double-checked by Cohen and a circle of advisers that includes Christie and people from Cohen’s hedge fund.

Of course the likes of Epstein and Beane—both of whom have the money and professional clout to do whatever they want all the time for the rest of their lives—would decline the opportunity to work in such a confused environment. But it comes as a minor surprise that in the six weeks that followed, the Mets also got turned down by, among others, the assistant GM of the 110-loss Orioles. This could’ve been a top-five front office job, and nobody wanted it.

So after almost two months and at least one full lap through the rolodex, the Mets are close to hiring a GM. Maybe Cromie will do a good job; it’s hard to do worse than the last three guys, so he has that going for him. But what he can’t do is offer Cohen’s Mets the imprimatur of respectability they seem to crave. No matter what results come in 2022, this isn’t how a first-class club operates.