Back on May 20th, I wrote an article which concluded that the Mets should fire Jerry Manuel. Of course, the Mets have gone 28-17 since that column was published, fueled by replacing John Maine and Oliver Perez in the rotation with R.A. Dickey and Hisanori Takahashi. Barring a collapse of epic proportions, Manuel will be the team’s manager for the rest of the 2010 season.
When asked what the best thing about Sparky Anderson was as a manager, Bill James replied, “His record.” Generally speaking, winning covers a multitude of sins and most people look at me askance when I say that the Mets would be better off with a different manager. Manuel is still the same guy who thought that Gary Matthews Jr. should start ahead of Angel Pagan. He is still the same guy who thought that Jenrry Mejia should be in the majors at age 20 despite not winning a game above A ball. He is still the same guy that thought pitching Fernando Nieve every day for two months was a good idea.
One could argue that Manuel has corrected each of those mistakes. But just because he has stopped making those obvious gaffes does not mean we now have a guy who is going to make all of the right choices going forward. I remain concerned about the evaluation skills of the guy who made those mistakes and I worry about how Manuel will do in September in a pennant race.
Here are five obvious things I will be watching how Manuel handles in the second half of the season.
1. How does Manuel handle Carlos Beltran?
The Mets as an organization have a lot of work to do in how they handle injured players. It’s not fair to lay all of the blame at Manuel’s feet, but as the guy who fills out the lineup card, he ultimately says who plays. Allowing an obviously injured Jose Reyes to come back was merely the latest terrible move in this regard. Is Beltran healthy? Can he play CF? How often does he need a day off? How will the cult of Jeff Francoeur influence playing time decisions? All of these questions need to be aced by Manuel if the Mets are going to make a playoff push.
2. How does Manuel handle the starting rotation?
Again, Manuel ultimately receives the credit or blame as he is the guy who picks the starters. Assuming no deal for a pitcher happens, how does Manuel handle the eventual return of Maine and Perez? It is no coincidence that the team’s surge took place once the bullpen-killing outings of that duo were replaced. How long of a leash does he give Takahashi? And if the Mets remain in the race and Mike Pelfrey pitches like he did in September of 2009 (or his last five starts of 2010), will Manuel have the guts to replace him?
3. How does Manuel handle the old guys?
If asked what Manuel’s strong suit was as a manger, I would reply his willingness to play rookies. Perhaps this trait stands out because he followed Willie Randolph as the team’s manager, but Manuel gave time to Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy , Jon Niese and others that many major league managers would not have. So, will Manuel install Luis Castillo as his regular second baseman for the rest of the season no matter what? Will he continue to trot out Rod Barajas, he of the .234/.282/.338 line in his last 157 PA, as his starting catcher? Does Manuel have the intestinal fortitude to play Ruben Tejada and Josh Thole as his starters if the veterans are healthy?
4. Can Manuel not blow out his bullpen?
After going through stretches where he abused Pedro Feliciano and Nieve, now Manuel’s new favorite toy is Bobby Parnell. In 20 days (19 games) in the majors, Parnell has been used 12 times. Extrapolated over a 162-game season, Parnell would be on a pace to appear in 97 games. No pitcher should pitch that often. Manuel has to do a better job managing his bullpen. I am not talking about defining roles. I am talking about giving pitchers a reasonable amount of rest. It is easy to do if you have confidence in your bullpen. But when you only have faith in two or three relievers at a time, the end result is over use.
5. How does Manuel handle Ike Davis?
In his first 10 games in the majors, Davis had a .355/.432/.548 line and Mets fans hailed him as a savior. It was hard to argue that point, given the production the club received from Mike Jacobs in the early going. But since April 30th, Davis has a .246/.324/.422 line in 272 PA. While still better than what Jacobs delivered, that is simply not acceptable production from a first baseman. It’s not like Davis is having bad luck – he has a .292 BABIP in that span.
The return of Beltran means that Davis will bat lower in the order – a necessary first step. But regardless of where he hits, Davis needs to provide a lot better than a .746 OPS. FanGraphs lists 29 first baseman on its leaderboards and the median OPS is .825 by Mark Teixeira, and to hear Yankees fans you would think he was floundering.
If Davis does not produce better numbers, the Mets need to contemplate making a trade for a bat to play first base. While the obvious upgrade is to get a SP, the biggest bang for the buck may come at 1B. But I do not expect the Mets to trade for a first baseman. Which means that Manuel has to be prepared to do something other than write Davis’ name in the lineup on a daily basis. With his glove, Davis is still a valuable commodity. Can Manuel find the optimum usage for Davis to minimize the damage of a below-average hitter?
These are just the obvious issues for Manuel at the All-Star break. Circumstance and his own managerial decisions will undoubtedly create new problems, some of which will exceed the five points listed above in priority.
Much like when Francoeur steps in the batter’s box, I will be rooting for Manuel to come through. Unfortunately, my expectations for the Mets manager are about the same as for the team’s Opening Day right fielder. Hopefully both will be elsewhere when the 2011 season gets underway.