The Mets’ Wally Problem

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There was a mini-storm regarding the Mets decision to send Ike Davis down to Triple A Las Vegas this week not because they did it (they had to); and not because Davis complained about it publicly (it would take an audacity unmeasurable with current available tools for him to do so), but because Las Vegas manager Wally Backman went on WFAN with Mike Francesa on Monday and expressed his opinion as to what’s wrong with Davis and what he’s planning to do to fix it.

Some in the Mets organization (presumably those who have been working with Davis—futilely) were offended that Backman so openly went against what they’ve been doing with the first baseman even though what they’ve been doing has yielded a hitter with home run champion potential batting .161 with 4 homers in 207 plate appearances in 2013. This minor dustup has exacerbated the problem the Mets have as they endure a 2013 season in which they’re likely to lose 95 games and are preparing to use the freed up money from the contract expirations of Johan Santana and Jason Bay to acquire name free agents to make a move in 2014. Any veteran acquisitions along the lines of Shin-Soo Choo and/or Jacoby Ellsbury would be done to add to David Wright, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Daniel Murphy, Jonathon Niese and Bobby Parnell. Travis d’Arnaud is also on the way.

Is Davis part of the future? He’s going to have to be right now because he has no trade value and the team doesn’t have a ready-made first baseman to replace him. The only choice they currently have is to get Davis straight and that led to the demotion to Triple A.

The Backman comments came from a miscommunication or Backman simply ignoring what he was told when it came to what was going to be with Davis. The Mets are no longer a club where the major league staff will say and do one thing and the minor league staff will say and do another. There’s not a lack of cohesion from the lowest levels of the minor leagues and going step-by-step to different levels with a multitude of hitting and pitching coaches imparting diametrically opposed theories to clog the heads of the youngsters so they don’t know what’s what when they go from one place to the other as they listen to everyone. For better or worse, the way Dave Hudgens teaches hitting at the big league level is how hitting is to be taught all the way through the organization. And that’s where the disconnect came with Backman.

The front office and Backman had different ideas as to what was going to occur with Davis in Triple A. The Mets major league front office and on-field staff wanted Davis to go to Las Vegas and not worry about media attention, endless questions as to what’s wrong and what he would do in the event that he was demoted, and the constant tweaking to his batting stance and approach to the tune of having a different one from game-to-game and at bat-to-at bat. Backman was under the impression that the Mets were sending Davis down to be “fixed” and that he was the one to do it.

The only way to determine who’s right and who’s wrong here is whether it works because there’s no “right” or “wrong.” If Backman sits Davis down and gets into an old-school “your head is getting in the way of your abilities” and Davis starts hitting, then Backman will have been “right.” If it was a breather he needed to get away from the constant scrutiny, then the front office will have been “right.” Or everyone will have been “right.” Or everyone will have been “wrong.” It might just come down to Davis himself.

Regardless, it’s these types of territorial battles that get in the way of actually developing and correcting players and it’s precisely what the Mets were trying to get away from when they brought Sandy Alderson onboard as GM.

As for Backman and his hopes to manage the Mets one day, it’s still up in the air and unlikely. Reports have surfaced that there is no chance that Alderson will ever hire Backman. That doesn’t mean that ownership won’t overrule Alderson, but given the way Alderson has done essentially whatever he’s wanted since taking over, they probably won’t deviate now just as they’re about to get better. Fred and Jeff Wilpon accepted that the entire organization needed to be rebuilt without the desperation that led to the contracts such as the one Bay signed. They’re taking the hits and dealing with the fallout of the past three years looking forward to the farm system and loosened purse strings building a sustainable success. They’re not going to undercut him and force Backman on him even if Terry Collins is dismissed after the season.

Much like Collins can’t be blamed for the current state of the Mets big league product, nor is it as certain as those in the media and fanbase portray it that Backman is the answer to all the Mets’ problems. As much of a competitor and baseball rat that Backman is, he has had off-field issues and how he handles the day-to-day questioning and pressure he’ll face as a manager in New York with expectations hovering over him has the potential to result in a Billy Martin-style wave of self-destructiveness. Placating the fans and Backman-supporters in the media would bring a brief bout of happiness and good press that would disappear within a month if the team continued to play under Backman as they did under Collins. Or he might be just what they need. There’s no way of knowing.

Backman has patiently bided his time and rebuilt his image after the embarrassing hiring and immediate firing as manager of the Diamondbacks after he didn’t inform them of his DUI and financial problems during the interview. He’s worked his way up through the Mets organization managing from rung-to-rung and is right below the spot he truly and openly wants. One of Backman’s strengths is also a weakness: he has no pretense. He wants the Mets job and doesn’t care who knows it. The failure to adequately play politics has alienated him with many in the organization who are tired of looking over their shoulder at a popular and potentially good manager who is passive aggressively campaigning for the managerial position. Other minor league managers and bench coaches want managerial jobs, but are more adept at knowing their place and skillfully putting up a front of loyalty and humility. That’s not Backman. Backman is, “You’re goddamn right I could do a great job as manager.” It won’t endear him to people in the organization who don’t want to know that’s the opinion of their Triple A manager.

If the Mets continue on the trajectory they’re currently on, they cannot possibly bring Collins—in the final year of his contract—back for 2014 when they’re seriously intent on jumping into the fringes of contention if not outright challenging for the division title next year. They could roll the dice on Backman; they could promote one of their own coaches Tim Teufel or Bob Geren; they could bring in an available and competent veteran manager like Jim Tracy; or they could hire another club’s bench coach who’s waiting for a shot like Dave Martinez.

What I believe will happen, though, is this: The Angels are in worse shape than the Mets with a massive payroll and expectations, nine games under .500, going nowhere and in rampant disarray. Angels owner Arte Moreno will not sit quietly after spending all of this money to make the Angels into a World Series contender and being rewarded with a team closer to the woeful Astros than the first place A’s. But manager Mike Scioscia has a contract through 2018 and Moreno only recently hired GM Jerry Dipoto. Scioscia and Dipoto are not on the same page and Scioscia’s style clearly isn’t working anymore with the type of team that Dipoto and Moreno have handed him. Another wrench in making a change is that the Dodgers are likely to be looking for a new manager and Scioscia is a popular former Dodger who is precisely what their fans want and their players need. The last thing Moreno will want to see is Scioscia picking up and going to the Dodgers days after he’s fired from the Angels.

Here’s the solution: Trade Scioscia to the Mets.

If the Mets are looking for a new manager and a name manager, they’d have to give someone established with Scioscia’s resume a 4-5 year deal anyway. Scioscia is already signed through 2018 with an opt-out after 2015. He’d relish the opportunity to enter a new clubhouse in a new city with a load of young talent and none of the drama and onerous financial obligations with nonexistent communication between the front office and the manager that he’s facing in Anaheim. Moreno wouldn’t have to worry about the back of the Los Angeles newspapers screaming about what a great job Scioscia’s doing with the Dodgers as the Angels face an uncertain future and significant retooling. Sending him across the country and getting out from under the contract while acquiring a couple of mediocre minor leaguers to justify it would fill everyone’s needs simultaneously.

Ironically, it was Scioscia who took over as fulltime Angels manager in 2000 after Collins had been fired at mid-season the year before and replaced on an interim basis by Joe Maddon. It could happen again with the Mets and they can only hope that the extended run of success that the Angels enjoyed with Scioscia’s steady leadership is replicated in New York.

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Meet The Mess Or A Mess To An End?

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There’s no spinning an eight run first inning, a 16-1 loss, and rampant humiliation the type the Phillies have inflicted on the Mets over the last three games. Only the Mets could let a Phillies team that’s dealing with an embarrassing season of their own do this. The Phillies, with a too little-too late comeback, have made their disappointing season a bit more bearable. But it’s still disappointing. That aside, they walked into Citi Field and backhanded the Mets and the Mets took it. Again. No doubt the Phillies were laughing on the bus back to Philly and they had reason to. It can be glossed over through the prism of payroll and preseason expectations or lack thereof, but the Mets participating in the Phillies downfall earlier this season by beating up on them is rendered meaningless by the past three games.

Suggestions that the Mets have quit are inarguable. It’s not about talent anymore, it’s about incompetence. A big league team cannot allow another big league team—regardless of disparity in talent and money—to treat them like a punching bag and leave them lying in the dirt shrugging as if it’s accepted that this is the way things are and will remain. The Mets could’ve hit the Phillies back for once and ended their playoff hopes. Instead, they gave them a lifeline. Behind the Cardinals by 4 with 12 to play and having to leapfrog both the Dodgers and Brewers make a Phillies playoff appearance all but impossible, but it could’ve ended this week and the Mets could’ve been the ones to do the deed. Instead, they chose to lay down.

Are the Mets this bad? No. Were they as good as they looked in the first half of the season when they were one of baseball’s most pleasant surprises and talked of buying at the deadline rather than selling (and did neither)? No. But there’s no escaping the 9 straight home losses and 14 of 16 since August 19th. Comparisons to the 1962 version of the Mets are based on nothing other than attempts at ridicule and pure numbers—there’s no comparison between the situations, but that it’s mentioned in this context is bad enough.

No one wants to hear the likes of Michael Kay saying, “I told you so,” when he had the team winning 50 games before the season. He didn’t tell anyone anything. The end result doesn’t prove the prediction accurate. Nor does anyone want to hear Mike Francesa, who earlier in the season repeatedly stated that Mets’ manager Terry Collins deserved a contract extension and is now speculating on the same manager’s job security. The beat writers have taken to Twitter and other outlets with their passive aggression and self-indulgent agendas.

It’s all meaningless.

But this has to be examined logically. Does it make a difference whether the Mets won 81 games? 77 games? Or 70 games? No. The front office is presumably angry about the perception of disinterest on the roster; that the stands are completely and deservedly empty; but in the big picture, they’ll take the higher draft pick and get a better player.

What can they do to fix this to avoid the same fate a year from now and have the Mets a more welcoming and inviting destination for prospective free agents as they have money to spend with the expiring contracts of Johan Santana and Jason Bay at the conclusion of 2013?

Collins isn’t going to be fired. There are increasing pushes for Wally Backman to take over as manager because he’s a feisty and aggressive, in-your-face type that won’t tolerate the mistakes that are being tolerated now. Backman will be on the coaching staff in 2013 as the bench coach in part to be feisty; in part to provide a link to the 1980s; in part to prepare as a possible heir apparent to Collins. The only coaches on this current staff that will return are Tim Teufel (he’s popular with the Wilpons); and Dave Hudgens (GM Sandy Alderson likes the way he teaches hitting). Apart from that, they’re all gone.

As for the players, the Mets have to get some fighter types who aren’t going to meekly accept the bullying of other clubs. This current group is too cerebral and passive. No one hits back. How about some mindless tough guys who don’t take garbage from other teams?

Jonny Gomes and Kyle Farnsworth are two of the types of players the Mets should consider adding. It’s not because they’re supremely talented or are drastic improvements over what they currently have. We don’t know what Farnsworth will do on the field one year to the next—he’s no worse than what they currently have—but he’s known throughout baseball as someone not to mess with. Gomes has pop off the bench and walks, but more importantly is always ready to drop the gloves and it was him who sent the message to the Yankees and the rest of baseball in 2008 with a spring training brawl that they weren’t going to shove the Rays’ collective heads into the toilet anymore.

Even if it’s a lateral move talent-wise, the Mets have to get some of the faces that have epitomized their fall over the past 5 years. By that I mean trading Bay for something, anything and eating money if they have to. Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez for Bay and $5 million would match up financially and the change-of-scenery might benefit the players, the Mariners, and the Mets. Shin-Soo Choo is going to be available and so will Chris Perez from the Indians. Maybe two bad teams could come to an agreement for a Bobby Parnell, Lucas Duda deal.

The notion of trading Ike Davis was floated recently. The source was in question and the Mets, as usual, were blamed for spreading the rumor that Davis doesn’t listen and parties too much. The truth is that the source in Adam Rubin’s piece was referred to as a “baseball source.” No one from the Mets was said to be that source other than via uninformed speculation. That doesn’t diminish the logic behind the idea. If the Mets can bring in an impact bat at a key position like Justin Upton as part of that deal or in a three-way trade, they have to explore it. I’d try to get Upton or see if the Rangers would want to be creative with Ian Kinsler. That would free the Mets to revisit the proposed trade by the Padres in which Daniel Murphy would’ve gone to San Diego for Luke Gregerson and perhaps ask for the speedy and versatile Everth Cabrera.

Many good things have happened to the Mets in 2012 in spite of the ludicrous conclusion to the season, but they can’t move forward with the roster and coaching staff in its current state. It comes back to the original question of whether this is a mess with an end or a simple mess.

Right now, it’s a combination of both. Behind the scenes and without fanfare, the farm system is being rebuilt well with plenty of young talent infusing the organization. Some, like Matt Harvey, are beginning their big league careers, and Zack Wheeler is on the way; but changes—cosmetic and practical—have to be made if only to put forth the perception of doing something. Anyone would’ve accepted the Mets being outgunned. It was expected. But players who should be happy to have a job can’t been seen as giving up. And that’s what’s happened. Keeping those players who’ve either quit or can’t play—Andres Torres, Josh Thole, Bay—won’t help, but dumping them certainly will if only for the sake of appearance.

Appearance is currently all they have left and, right now, it’s not particularly attractive. In fact, it’s downright ugly.

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Jason Bay Was a Big Time Power Hitter…

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“Listen, I’ve found something else.”

The above quote is from Keith Hernandez’s book If At First about the 1985 season with the Mets. Hernandez’s dad was his main hitting coach from childhood and during a horrific slump, was trying to help his son regain the swing that made him one of the premier hitters in baseball.

Studying old tapes while Hernandez was with the Cardinals, his dad saw that Hernandez had gradually opened his stance until it was too open; also, he wasn’t seeing the full uniform number on his back from the centerfield camera as his son prepared to swing.

Hernandez didn’t buy it. It was “automatic”. He simply knew where to place his foot when he stepped into the box. He knew how far to turn and other small details of his swing.

He knew.

But his dad was right.

Shortly after making the adjustments with his stance, hands and hip turn in July of 1985, Hernandez went on a tear batting .392 in July with a 1.122 OPS and won Player of the Month.

Veteran players who’ve had success, in general, have a series of checkpoints that they adhere to. There’s not much for a hitting coach to tell them because they’ve usually figured it out for themselves.

But sometimes the hitter needs a coach to tell him what he sees and intervene if it’s not working. If imperceptible alterations have been made without the hitter realizing it, they have to be nipped before becoming ingrained.

In this Sports Illustrated article about Jason Bay, Mets hitting coach Dave Hudgens looked at Bay’s swing, stance and approach while he was with the Red Sox in 2008-2009 and noticed the differences between then and what Bay’s done in his two years with the Mets.

It’s amazing how quickly a great hitter like Hernandez or one that’s been a top power producer like Bay loses confidence and listens to everyone and tries everything.

Bay made the changes Hudgens suggested in September of 2011 and started hitting.

It was only one month, but he had a .313/.392/.563 slash line with 3 homers and 7 doubles. That’s the hitter the Mets thought they were getting.

Those who were savaging Bay as a disaster because of his injuries and poor performance with the Mets used silly arguments to “prove” their assertions.

“It’s because of Citi Field.”

The Pirates’ home of PNC Park is about as tough a hitter’s park as Citi Field and Bay was fine while playing there. As a Met, he’s hit much better at home in Citi Field than he has on the road.

“It’s because he’s a Met.”

What one thing has to do with another is beyond me and it might be because there’s no evidence—other than lame jokes—that signing with the Mets has anything to do with an established All-Star player’s decline. Are the Mets worse than the Pirates were while Bay was there? No.

Sometimes the reason for a fall is obvious. When a player is doing something differently from what worked and is failing, obviously he needs to go back to what he did before. But he has to have someone point it out and he has to listen.

Will Bay again become the player he was with the Pirates? With the Red Sox? Will he stay healthy?

Or will we have a repeat of his first two seasons with the Mets?

There’s no answer until the games start, but a good indicator of a player’s future performance is his past performance and for Bay—someone who was never accused of using any PEDs—to have suddenly “lost” it at age 31 is ludicrous.

Hernandez went back to what he did before and it worked. Bay’s doing the same thing.

Will it work?

Look at the back of the card at his numbers before he joined the Mets. For those seven seasons, he was a top power hitter; for two, he’s been a disaster.

I’ll take the seven over the two and believe that he’s going to hit because that’s what he did before.

It’s not all that hard to figure out.

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