John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Early Sunday afternoon, when Pete Alonso was still basking in the glow of Saturday night's historic 53rd home run -- the most ever for a major-league rookie -- he was telling SNY's Steve Gelbs in a pre-game interview that one of his primary goals going into next season is to improve his defense at first base.
"I want to win a Gold Glove," he said.
Suffice it to say that spoke not only to Alonso's pursuit of greatness, but the outlook for the Mets in the years to come.
Talk about changing the culture.
That was a point of emphasis for Brodie Van Wagenen upon taking the job as GM nearly a year ago, and he traded for Robinson Cano at least partly with that in mind, which wasn't necessary as it turned out.
Simply put, Alonso's endearing personality, in concert with his spectacular power-hitting ability, became the centerpiece of an evolving, team-first camaraderie that became evident in the way the Mets fought their way back into the Wild Card race, as well as the joy they took in celebrating walk-off wins.
Indeed it was the guy Todd Frazier nicknamed the Polar Bear who gave those celebrations an instant trademark by tearing the jersey off the night's hero, which made for some bare-chested TV interviews, including one from Alonso himself after a walk-off walk.
Gelbs was there through all of it, doing the interviews for SNY, spending more time in the Mets' clubhouse than anyone but the players themselves, and he says no one had more impact than Alonso.
"Pete is the culture-changer," Gelbs said by phone Monday. "There are other guys, like J.D. Davis, and Dom Smith, who were a big part of creating a special atmosphere around this team, but Pete is the main guy.
"He's already a superstar, and yet he's as genuine a guy as anyone I've ever seen in the game. It's not even close. And that's why they all love him in that clubhouse."
It sets up the Mets for grand possibilities in the coming years, as they come out of the 2019 season with a better-than-expected young core of position players, including the likes of Jeff McNeil, Amed Rosario, Michael Conforto, and Brandon Nimmo in addition to Alonso, Davis, and Smith.
Six of those seven players will be making close to minimum salary next season, not even eligible for arbitration yet, and Mets' ownership needs to take advantage of it by spending on pitching to give this team a chance to win a championship while Jacob deGrom is still at the top of his game.
Likewise, Van Wagenen needs to convince ownership, if that is indeed the case, that this team needs a better manager if it wants to win big.
The Mets gave Mickey Callaway a second season to prove he learned from the mistakes he made as a rookie manager, only it turned out he was no better with his in-game decisions, even with a veteran bench coach, Jim Riggleman, at his side. Some of his strategic moves left baseball people, from rival scouts and executives to Mets' personnel flabbergasted, and at times even more so by his post-game explanations than the decisions themselves.
Saying, for example, that he wanted to get Phillies journeyman reliever Mike Morin out of the game as justification for an intentional walk that brought Bryce Harper to the plate as a pinch-hitter against Tyler Bashlor a few weeks ago, sounded almost beyond belief.
"He would have been better off saying his dog ate his homework," was the way one long-time scout, a former major leaguer player, put it. "And don't think that goes unnoticed by the players. Nothing causes more grumbling in the clubhouse than when the players start thinking the manager is costing them games."
With that in mind, it's fair to question the narrative that developed around the Mets' second-half surge of it being due to the respect Callaway commanded in the clubhouse. Often you can't judge anything by what players say publicly, and as a former agent, Van Wagenen is closer to the players than most GMs, meaning he should have a feel for the clubhouse dynamic.
As for Van Wagenen's own relationship with Callaway: it's worth remembering the new GM made a point of convincing ownership to upgrade the analytics department. So when the manager tried to justify one questionable in-game decision earlier this month by saying that, "85 percent of what we do goes against analytics," that alone may have sealed his fate.
In any case, the fate of the Callaway aside, Van Wagenen has important decisions to make this offseason, primarily in going about fixing the bullpen that was most responsible for the sabotaging the Mets' pursuit of a playoff spot. There will be some tough calls, such as whether to trade Smith for pitching help, or keep his bat for the type of depth he provided in 2019.
But whatever the GM does, he can feel comfortable about the culture he talked about upon taking the job. Again, much of that is thanks to Alonso, who is quickly assuming a David Wright-like role in the clubhouse, and seems a good bet to be named a captain at some point over the next few years.
And while Van Wagenen is mostly responsible for the bullpen failures -- trading for Edwin Diaz and signing Jeurys Familia -- he gets credit for helping speed up the Alonso phenomenon, ignoring service-time implications, and having him start the season in the big leagues.
Now, 53 home runs later, not to mention the Gold Glove he said he is determined to win, Alonso is the rock-solid foundation, on and off the field around which the Mets should make every effort to build a championship ballclub.