The Mets and ending their definition of mediocrity

MLB

Edwin Diaz

Earlier in the week, New York Mets manager Mickey Callaway elicited eye-rolls when he discussed the Mets’ struggle to reach .500 and get on a roll to get beyond the record that is the objective definition of mediocrity. After Tuesday’s doubleheader split with the injury-riddled crosstown Yankees and Thursday’s rain suspended tie against the equally mediocre St. Louis Cardinals, there are certain fundamental realities that the club and the fans must accept and act upon to maintain a glimmer of hope that this team can make the postseason.

Forget Jarred Kelenic

That means stop mentioning Jarred Kelenic.

Stop obsessively tracking the progress of Jarred Kelenic.

And come to the acceptance stage of the grieving process that the Mets no longer have Jarred Kelenic.

They have Edwin Diaz who, despite his struggles, is still a top-three closer in baseball when he’s performing up to his capabilities. He’s in a slump. His advanced statistics have been relatively consistent with his 2018 numbers with the Seattle Mariners. He’s given up more home runs, but that could be a byproduct of his home games being a park where it’s easier to hit home runs at Citi Field compared to what they were in then-Safeco Field, that the ball is clearly juiced, and hitters are going to the plate trying to hit home runs in every at-bat.

The mental aspect cannot be ignored. He knows who he was traded for and what the fans and large factions of the media said when the trade was made. He’s hearing the whispers and seeing the laments. Demoting him, trading him in a housecleaning, rebuilding – none of this is going to happen. Rather than repeat the same pattern that achieves nothing but validate an entrenched confirmation bias, live with what the Mets have and ignore what they traded away.

Dom Smith must play

Certainly, no one is expecting Smith to maintain his basic statistical split of .354/.442/.573. Nor can anyone believe that his advanced statistics of wRC+ of 174 is sustainable. His BAbip is an absurd .417. He’s only had 95 plate appearances, so he’s going to fall back to earth. The only question is whether the landing will be soft and he’ll settle into his minor league splits of .295/.360/.425 or it will be a crash landing of his previous non-production in the majors.

The Mets have openly said they’re not writing lineups based on contracts or veteran status. Smith has played left field adequately. Once Brandon Nimmo and Robinson Cano return, that should not impact whether Smith is in the semi-regular lineup. If that means putting into practice the recent suggestion of Jeff McNeil seeing some time in center field, so be it. If Cano and Nimmo are unhappy about it, it’s simple: When you play, hit. If you don’t hit, you don’t play. If that means Cano will sit if he’s not hitting, he’ll need to sit without complaint.

They must buy – within reason – at the trade deadline.

As mentioned earlier, the idea of a gutting and rebuild is a fantasy from those who have:

A) never run a business

B) are harboring dreams – as inexplicable as they are – that losing 100 games for three years automatically results in a dynasty

The Mets either need to be bold at the trade deadline and add or essentially stand pat and wait for the offseason to make radical changes (that will not include a gutting rebuild).

The Atlanta Braves have been playing excellently and were aggressive in signing Dallas Keuchel.

The Philadelphia Phillies are ravaged by injuries and, with a flurry of trades and roster shuffling, are repeating the same failed blueprint from 2018 when they made panicky maneuvers to fix a flat tire by buying a new car.

The entire National League is flawed. With the Mets’ moves in the winter designed to win right now, they can’t do an about face and sell the likes of Zack Wheeler and Todd Frazier to look toward 2020 and beyond unless they completely collapse and fall double-digits out of the division lead and Wild Card spots.

What is buying “within reason?”

It doesn’t mean gutting the farm system for a rental. It does mean looking for upgrades at positions of need with relievers Brad Hand of the Cleveland Indians, Will Smith of the San Francisco Giants and Cam Bedrosian of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They cannot sit on the sidelines and expect different results from similar strategies used in the past of waiting out injured players and expecting them to be comparable to deadline acquisitions as they did with Wheeler in 2016, Yoenis Cespedes and Jed Lowrie.

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The problem Mickey Callaway won’t have time to fix with the Mets

MLB

Van Wagenen Callaway

Even in baseball’s current landscape of data-centric strategies and tightly controlled implementation, there are fundamental job requirements making it difficult for just anyone to do it. While managerial experience and tactical knowhow is no longer deemed as make or break in hiring someone and other aspects – handling the media, steering the clubhouse, adhering to front office edicts – have taken precedence, there are unavoidable factors that make it necessary for certain clubs to have a manager who can blunt interference from the front office and ownership and make in the trenches decisions that might not come out of the new managerial manual.

As the New York Mets tread water in the National League East and hover around .500, it is abundantly clear that manager Mickey Callaway is not equipped to handle the job as it stands. Either the situation must change making it more tenable for this manager or the manager must be changed. There’s no in between.

Fortunate though they are that the division and nearly the entire National League is mired in mediocrity keeping them within striking distance of a playoff spot, at some point they need to win their own games and establish a level of consistency. That means not blowing games they should win. On this road trip through Los Angeles and Arizona alone, bullpen implosions have cost them two games they should easily have won. Contrary to popular sentiment, the Mets’ bullpen is not unusual in being inconsistent to the point of terribleness. However, the Mets do not have the wiggle room to lose these games and think it will eventually even out.

There are teams that can hire a manager with limited or no bona fides for the job and get away with it. With the crosstown Yankees’ stellar play, it’s difficult not to give credit to Aaron Boone, but he is still functioning as a conduit to the front office with general manager Brian Cashman and his staff calling the shots. Dave Roberts has done nothing but win since he became Los Angeles Dodgers manager, but he too benefits from abundant information and little left to his whims. Those clubs also have resources they’re willing to spend. These things cannot be said about the Mets. The Mets do not have the same margin for error that clubs like the Dodgers and Yankees do. They can survive knowing that the template covers for real-time managerial errors that the numbers crunchers didn’t have time to mitigate with a flowchart of “if this-then that” moves.

If Callaway seems overmatched, he’s only partially at fault for that. No, he did not have any managerial experience whatsoever when he took the job, but his history having played for Mike Scioscia and Buck Showalter and serving as Terry Francona’s pitching coach should have been sufficient for him to have absorbed enough managerial touch and feel that these snap decisions would not be as worrisome as they are. Worse, he says and does one thing and the players and front office will openly contradict him making him appear not to know what is happening in his own clubhouse. This was evident in Saturday night’s loss and Jacob deGrom’s hip concerns being the latest example.

Deciding on who catches based on “catcher win percentage”; denying that there will be a personal catcher system between deGrom and Tomas Nido, but if there is it will be a problem in the playoffs; saying Edwin Diaz would only pitch one inning and then backing off on it after viral critiques and questions – all appear to have come either from the front office or fear of what the front office will say if he exercises the autonomy the manager must have to maintain credibility.

But he has no autonomy, is losing credibility, and does not have the experience or the contract to resist.

Obviously, a chunk of that is because of front office dictates that seemingly stem from reaction to fan anger and media attacks, not because they have examined the problem and formulated a detailed and information-based solution for it even if it is neither popular nor understandable to the critics.

All too often, he is relegated to the organizational puppet whose job is not to manage the team, but to serve as its punching bag, making statements before and after the game that sound like flimsy excuses because he doesn’t know how to frame his words and is too nice to make generic “because I’m the manager” statements that are tantamount to telling the questioner to shut up and mind his or her business without saying it so combatively.

In the past decade, the Mets have not been an organization that entered the season with a relatively accurate interpretation of what they will be, barring injuries and unforeseen occurrences. They have had a series of ifs and maybes with the best and worst-case scenarios dictating the midseason strategy. If they deemed themselves close enough to warrant buying at midseason and trying to win, that’s what they did. If they were trapped in the middle, they stood pat. If they were hopelessly out of contention, they sold players who were pending free agents. There has not been a deep dive into a single blueprint that they would stick to no matter what. Whether that was due to fear or mitigation or both is irrelevant.

Having hired Brodie Van Wagenen as GM, they made clear they are trying to win now. Still, they have not gone all in with that attempt.

After the sweep by the Miami Marlins two weeks ago, Callaway’s job was clearly in jeopardy, but the Mets tried to go the “let’s be fair” route and understood that the team’s woes are not solely the fault of the manager. They gave him a reprieve, to quote Van Wagenen, “for the foreseeable future.”

Fairness is one thing, but acknowledging reality and the inevitable is another. Callaway is not the problem, but he’s clearly not the solution either.

The Mets have two choices: either change the way the team is run from the top and let Callaway handle the job or hire someone who can do the job in this environment. With the division still winnable and the team staggering, something must be done to save the season even if it means that the front office will need to defer to its new manager and pay him a salary commensurate with his experience.

Hiring Joe Girardi, Showalter, Scioscia or Dusty Baker does not mean the bullpen won’t keep blowing games. It does eliminate the randomness in the usage of the relievers; stops statements from being made and immediately backtracked on because outsiders don’t like it; and the manager will have the contract and the cachet to say why he did what he did and not sound as if he’s clumsily trying to talk his way out of a speeding ticket.