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June 15, 2011

On the Beat

The New King of Queens

by John Perrotto

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It takes some managers years to endure the trials that Terry Collins has in first season as the Mets' skipper.

For starters, Collins is managing a team in the largest market in the country that still sought to secure a loan from Major League Baseball after owner Fred Wilpon lost a reported $700 million in his buddy Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. In a recent feature story in the New Yorker, Wilpon had unflattering things to say about his team's three biggest stars, opining that third baseman David Wright "is not a superstar," shortstop Jose Reyes "would not get Carl Crawford money" in free agency, and right fielder Carlos Beltran was "60-70 percent of what he used to be."

Collins has also been without his best starting pitcher all season, as left-hander Johan Santana’s rehab from last year's shoulder surgery continues. Santana suffered a setback over the weekend and likely won't be back next month, as the Mets had hoped.

Furthermore, the Mets have been without first baseman Ike Davis since May 11 because of a sprained ankle and Wright since May 16 because of a stress fracture in his lower back. Right-hander Chris Young underwent season-ending shoulder surgery after just four starts.

All that might be enough to discourage even the most optimistic of managers. Yet Collins couldn't be happier to be back managing in the major leagues for the first time in 11 years.

"It's been a great thrill and a lot of fun, especially something like this job where you are managing on the biggest stage in the world in New York," Collins said. "There's a lot of attention and a lot of focus. It's different than any other city, but I'm glad to be back."

Collins had three-year managerial stints with the Astros (1994-96) and Angels (1997-99), compiling a 476-467 record and finishing in second place in each of his first five seasons. However, both stints ended badly, as the intense Collins clashed with Astros superstars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and then presided over a near clubhouse revolt with the Angels that caused him to walk away from the job less than a month after he had been signed to a contract extension.

However, the Mets have played respectably despite all the adversity, building a 33-34 record that puts them in third place in the National League East, eight games behind the division-leading Phillies but just 4 1/2 behind the second-place Braves. Collins, who has admittedly dialed down the intensity at the age of 62, is getting credit for holding his team together during a tumultuous first 2 1/2 months of the season.

"Terry is really good at keeping the focus on the field, where it is supposed to be," left fielder Jason Bay said.

Collins knew coming into the job that fending off distractions and putting out any brushfires that might threaten to erupt in the city's competitive media environment would be his responsibility. He has handled that part of the job extremely well, especially in the case of Wilpon's comments. The Mets were on the road playing the Cubs when that story broke, and Wilpon wanted to fly to Chicago and apologize to the players in person. Instead, Collins convinced Wilpon that coming to the Windy City would only foster further distractions, and instead had him talk to the players via conference call.

"The thing that we have continually preached since the first day of spring training is that there are things in your control and things that are not," Collins said. "We remind (the players) that at 7:05 each night, when you take the field, take a deep breath and enjoy it because that's where you belong. The stuff on the periphery has to be set aside. We reinforce it every day. A lot of things have popped up, and we've tried to cut them off the best we can."

Collins has also become more regimented in his daily routine compared to his days managing in the 1990s. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that he has been received favorably by the New York media.

"One of the things I've tried to do is budget my time," Collins said. "In the past, I got to the ballpark and kind of did my own thing. Here, you've got to get stuff done and give the media people their due time. With the numbers involved, it can be overwhelming if you let it."

Only once this season has Collins felt a bit overwhelmed by his team's play. That low point came during the Mets' last homestand, when they held the lead in all 10 games but won just five. The Mets are 12th in the NL and 21st in the majors in runs allowed, with an average of 4.35 per game. The bullpen has been a particular problem, as the Mets have struggled to get leads from the starters to closer Francisco Rodriguez, who has a 3.21 Fair Run Average.

"We've got to do a better job of protecting leads," Collins said. "We're getting into the middle of summer. You've got to win the majority of those games when you're leading. You can't just split them. You're not going to go anywhere doing that."

The Mets feel that they can go on a run if they can get their whole lineup together, as they are sixth in the NL and 14th in the majors with 4.18 runs scored per game despite the physical absence of Wright and Davis (team-leading .327 True Average) and the disappearance at the plate by Bay (.235). Reyes (.324) and Beltran (.306) have kept the offense afloat, while a host of complementary players have also contributed.

"We haven't gotten a lot of big hits yet," Collins said. "We don't have a lot of power, but I truly believe we've got some people in this lineup with some pop, especially when we're all healthy. Jason Bay's career numbers speak for themselves, he going to hit, and then when we get David and Ike back, that is going to be boost. Even though Carlos has played well, I still think there is more in his bat."

The star of the show is Reyes, who ranks third in the NL with 3.0 WARP, trailing Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp (3.6) and Reds first baseman Joey Votto (3.4). Collins feels that Reyes has been the NL's Most Valuable Player to this point in this season.

"He's a guy that if you have $25 in your pocket and wanted to go to a baseball game, that's the guy you should buy a ticket and go see," Collins said. "He's been phenomenal."


Rumors and Rumblings:

The Phillies will make every effort to lock up left-hander Cole Hamels this offseason before he becomes a free agent after 2012, despite their financial commitments to rotation-mates Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt… The Orioles would like to sign shortstop J.J. Hardy to a contract extension… While the Astros have been mentioned as the most likely team to switch from the National League to the American League if realignment takes place, there is also some sentiment in support of having the Diamondbacks make the move instead… Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard is drawing plenty of interest from teams in both leagues… The Rays will listen to offers on center fielder B.J. Upton at the trading deadline whether or not they are in the pennant race, since they have prospect Desmond Jennings as a ready-made replacement… One of the more interesting starting pitchers who will likely be on the market at the deadline is Jeremy Guthrie. The Orioles could get a good return back for an overvalued player: Guthrie's ERA is a fine 3.77, which is attractive to suitors, but his SIERA is 4.33, and his Fair Run Average is a hefty 5.18.


Scouts' views:

Athletics right-hander Trevor Cahill: "The biggest difference between his big year last year and this year is command. It's not that he is walking a ton of people, but he doesn't have the same command of his pitches within the strike zone. He's not a stuff pitcher. He's not going to overpower you. He has to hit his spots."

Nationals utility man Jerry Hairston Jr.: "He's really starting to slip as he is getting older. He can be overpowered by hard throwers, and he doesn't hit the ball hard very often. He can still drive an occasional breaking pitch, and his versatility is an asset, but he is not the player he used to be."

Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels: "He gets overlooked with Halladay, Lee and Oswalt, but he's having a heckuva year. He's throwing harder than ever, but his command is also the best I've ever seen it. He's basically throwing just fastballs and changeups, but he's been so good that hitters haven't been able to do anything."

Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff: "After he reestablished himself as a power hitter last season, pitchers have adjusted back. They know he can catch up to just about any fastball, but you can make him chase off-speed stuff, especially with two strikes, and they are feeding him a steady diet of breaking balls and changeups."

Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz: "He has been disheartening to watch so far since coming off the DL. He just seems lost. He has no command of his pitches. He doesn't look confident or comfortable on the mound. He's really taking a step backward."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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