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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Mets' Managerial Situation

When things go bad, management fires the manager, even though a Major League Baseball manager hardly has the impact on a game the way a head coach in the National Football League game can. Put differently, managers can help you win (or lose) roughly 6 to 10 games.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement came from the great Whitey Herzog in an interview in Sports Illustrated decades ago. Herzog said that if given a choice between a team with great talent and a horsebleep manager and horsebleep talent and a great manager, he'd bet on the team with the horsebleep manager every time. In horse racing parlance, you bet the horse, not the jockey.

Yet, the easiest thing for Mets' management to do is focus on the jockey, who, admittedly, hasn't done a great job with his horse. As Jayson Stark pointed out on ESPN Radio this morning, since Memorial Day of 2007, the Mets have played 162 games and are 4 games under .500. All that said, how good is this horse?

A Met fan friend yesterday opined that what the Mets need is Larry Bowa. My answer, and it hurt me to say this being a Phillies' loyalist, is that Bowa is the last thing this Mets team needs. Bowa failed in his two managerial stints, the first when he probably wasn't ready in San Diego, and the second (when he was more than ready), in Philadelphia (preceding Charlie Manuel). Bowa has proven himself to be an able #2 or #3 (depending on how you value third-base coaches versus bench coaches), but his temperament just doesn't gel with today's player. He's gasoline on the fire, because he hasn't fared well with his teams as a whole. As a top assistant, he's been invaluable to relating to players where the spotlight isn't on him (apparently he excelled in getting Robinson Cano to play beyond his ability as the Yankees' third-base coach).

What you need, Met fans, is an excellent manager, one tough enough to lead but one modern enough to understand today's player. The mid-day guys on WFAN got it wrong, Evan in particular, when he endorsed the concept that the Mets need a Hispanic manager. Sorry, Evan, but not only is that type of thinking against the law, it doesn't make any sense. There are all sorts of Hispanic managers, from bad to good to fiery to mellow. What the team needs is a manager who can relate to the makeup of the current Mets' team, regardless of whether he's Hispanic. If Willie Randolph isn't the guy, what the Mets need is the right one.

But then let's get back to the horse. How good are the Mets? Once they got Johan Santana, most pundits predicted they'd win the NL East. Even I, as a diehard Phillies' fan, conceded that the Mets were the team to beat, because they just added a guy whose projected won-loss record would be something like 17-8, giving then a plus 9 in the standings. In David Wright, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran they have an excellent nucleus, and in Santana they have an ace with some good other starters. The bullpen going into the season was more iffy than a year ago, but still solid despite the last-season collapse. On balance, they should have been made the favorites.

The question, though, is how good is everyone else? Okay, you can talk about chemistry and leadership, but after Santana and Maine, how good are the starters? Oliver Perez is an enigma, and Mike Pelphrey remains a project. Who knows if Pedro will return or El Duque will return to form? And how good is the bullpen? Who are the other excellent hitters besides those who comprise the nucleus and Moises Alou when he's healthy? I know I'm being hypercritical here, but I'm doing so to make a point -- is the team as good as advertised? Can it really be the National League representative in the World Series?

My answer remains the same as it was going into the season: yes, absolutely, and here's why. The Marlins will wilt in the summer heat, despite their great start. While proving that they're a team to reckon with in the future and while they'll be getting some pitchers back, they're not there yet. The Braves don't have a killer x factor that scares you, despite Chipper Jones' galvanizing arguments that he's a Hall of Famer. The Phillies remain dangers, and if they start to hit (which they've showed signs of doing), they could bludgeon the division and win it by 5-7 games. Yet, their starting pitching is iffy. Brett Myers has a ten-cent head, and Adam Eaton has pitched with disastrous results. Their bullpen, though, remains solid. The Cubs and Astros have shown might in the Central, but the Astros are playing beyond their full-year capabilities and something (bad) usually happens to the Cubs. The Diamondbacks are for real, but the rest of the West doesn't scare anyone. In short, why not the Mets?

Which is what the Mets' ownership must be thinking, and that means that they'll make a move soon. But when you're replacing a key member of management, you should only do so when you have a solid candidate lined up. While it's hard to line anyone up clandestinely (because the media is ubiquitous), the Wilpons and Omar Minaya must have some ideas. They can't go with a rookie manager with this veteran club, and they should hire someone who's taken a veteran team either to the Series or won a Series with a veteran team. Among those out there are Jack McKeon (who probably is retired for good now), Bob Brenly (who did a nice job with the Diamondbacks), Mike Hargrove (who admittedly didn't reach the promised land with the Indians and who hasn't managed for years) and a few others. My choice would be Brenly, even though he's not Keith Hernandez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Gary Carter or someone with even remote ties to the Mets' organization.

I feel badly for Willie Randolph and hate to see anyone lose a job. But if the Mets are going to make a move, they should make sure that they're hiring the right person for a complicated team -- someone with a thick skin for the New York media, someone with patience for the rookies, someone positive enough yet tough enough for the modern baseball player, and someone who knows how to win.

I think I probably just described Joe Torre and Terry Francona.

Who else fits that bill?


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