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“Fi-re Wil-lie! Fi-re Wil-lie!”
“Free Willieeee!”
“Fi-re Wil-lie! Fi-re Wil-lie!”
“Leave Willie alone!!!”

So it went last night in the waning minutes of last night’s game at Shea, a 7-3 Mets loss to the Marlins. The remnants of a mediocre holiday crowd trying to work up a decent rage against the manager of their disappointing team, and a lone woman, three rows off the Marlins’ dugout, decked out in blue and orange gear, headphones on, holding a styrofoam cup of heaven knows what, defending Willie Randolph to her brethren at the top of her lungs. It might have been noble, had it not been so sad.

Look, I get that it’s New York. I get that Mets fans, the media that covers them, and perhaps even the team’s owners and players are all still nursing the wounds created by last September’s collapse that cost the team a division title. I get that the team is in fourth place, with a payroll of $138 million that created expectations of dominance. I was as wrong about this team as anyone, calling them the best team in the NL after they acquired Johan Santana.

What I don’t get is the idea that Willie Randolph is such a critical part of whatever problems exist that he has to go. That’s the only story in this city right now: WillieWatch. Even after a long meeting Monday in which Randolph emerged with his job, there’s an expectation that Randolph could be fired at any time. The increasingly shrill and unfocused invective aimed at Randolph-who admittedly did not acquit himself well by raising the spectre of a conspiracy against him-is wildly disproportionate to the performance of the Mets manager. In three-plus years in New York, Randolph has a 291-244 record and steered his club to one NLCS appearance, and he’s the same guy he was over the winter, when Omar Minaya retained him in the wake of that lost September. Minaya recognized that Randolph was not responsible for what happened. The deterioration of the pitching staff that drove the 7-17 finish to 2007 was as much Minaya’s doing as Randolph’s, and the GM worked to fix the problem by acquiring Johan Santana in an effort to bolster the rotation and take pressure off the overworked bullpen.

That said, Randolph isn’t exactly the love child of John McGraw and Casey Stengel. What I find interesting about him is how similar he is to Joe Torre, in that he projects calm and wants to create an atmosphere that allows the professionals in his employ to do their jobs with minimal distraction, recent meltdown aside. Like Torre, Randolph isn’t a very good tactical manager, and it was his inability to manage a high-maintenance bullpen last year that cost the Mets games not in September, when no one was pitching well, but in May, June, and July, when some better choices in-game could have put the division away. For all the talk about the Mets having a leadership problem, no one was making that argument for the first 460 games of Randolph’s tenure, so it seems a bit specious to decide now that the Mets’ real problem is some character flaw in their manager that only surfaced in the last 75.

No, what should overshadow WillieWatch is that the Mets have real baseball problems, ones that may not be reparable in the short term, ones that I personally underestimated in the post-Santana rush to anoint them the favorites in the NL. I still think the Mets can win the NL East and get back to the postseason, but whether Randolph is their manager or not will have less to do with that than will their ability to improve the team at some key spots.

Right now, the Mets have scored and allowed 4.7 runs per game. My prediction, at the start of the year, was that they would score 4.94 and allow 4.17. So they’re behind on both counts, but moreso on preventing runs than scoring them. (For now, we’ll set aside issues of league run levels and opponent effects.) So why is it that the Mets are underperforming?

  • Carlos Delgado. It’s probably unfair to pin it all on one man, but when the guy who’s fourth on the team in plate appearances is hitting .215/.294/.387 with zero defensive value, that’s enough to put you off your estimates. Delgado is a player who I expected to have a smoother glide path on the downslope of a fine career than this, but over two seasons he’s gone from above-average to sub-replacement. There’s likely a dead-cat bounce in his short-term future, but there’s no way he’s going to be an asset this year.

    I don’t see a way to blame this on Randolph. He doesn’t have a good option behind Delgado-the default would probably be a Marlon Anderson/Fernando Tatis platoon. He could, at the least, platoon Delgado with Tatis and get some small gain against southpaws without disrupting the team. Even Delgado has to know that he hasn’t hit lefties in a while.

    Looking past the current roster, the Mets have Val Pascucci in New Orleans, not that he’s ever gotten a chance to hit in the majors no matter what’s he done at Triple-A; the Mets recently promoted Nick Evans from Binghamton rather than call up Pascucci. Mike Carp, also at Binghamton, is hitting .333/.395/.516 as a Double-A repeater, and Kevin Goldstein reports that the stats pair up with a positive scouting report. If Delgado doesn’t turn it around, Carp could follow Evans south to Queens.

  • Left field. With Moises Alou having been available for about two weeks so far, the Mets have used eight players in left field, and six starters. None, other than Alou, is a major league-caliber regular. Randolph rode Angel Pagan as long as he could before Pagan got hurt, and is making do with replacements as he is provided. Endy Chavez has reverted to being Endy Chavez. As with Delgado, I fail to see how Randolph is responsible for the Mets’ problems in left.

    Not to put too fine a point on this, but a team with a hole in left field, desperate for lefty power (the Mets are 11th in homers and 12th in slugging), that has already committed itself to below-average defense and occasional unavailability from the regular in that spot, that has a win-now bent, and whose season is already the subject of crushing media coverage… I mean, how hard is this to figure out? Sign him already. Barry Bonds is Alou, but with better offense, defense, speed, and health.

  • Jose Reyes. Two years ago, when Reyes began drawing a lot more walks, I was quick to credit Randolph for that development. Randolph, after all, had been a high-OBP middle infielder with good plate discipline, so it stood to reason that the newly patient Reyes was learning from his manager. Reyes walked 27 times in 2005, then 27 times by the end of June 2006. Since then, Reyes has settled in as a good player, but his terrific first half of 2007 aside, he has fallen short of being a great one. Reyes is a .290/.350/.450 middle infielder who also contributes very good basestealing and baserunning. With so much of the expectations for the Mets riding on Reyes being better than that, on his being a superstar, it’s clear that some of the shortfall between projection and reality is Reyes’ performance.

    More disturbing than Reyes’ offensive stagnation has been his defense. He was a plus shortstop in 2006 and ’07, but watching him last night, he looked tentative. He made a key error in the first inning, and even on plays he made, he looked awkward, even hesitant. It seemed, especially on a line drive late in the game, that he might have been having problems picking up the ball off the bat, not seeing it well. I readily admit that this is speculation based on limited observation, but if there’s even a fraction of a chance it’s an eyesight issue, the Mets should have Reyes’ vision checked. There’s minimal cost and significant potential return if a problem is found and corrected.

    Whereas Randolph cannot really be blamed for Delgado’s collapse or Alou’s fragility, Reyes’ lack of development is a different issue. Surely some of Reyes’ performance issues, such as his worsening contact rate, stagnant walk rate, and declining effectiveness as a basestealer should be addressable from Randolph’s chair. The Mets needed Reyes to be a star, and the current version falls well short of that standard; a portion of that has to fall on Randolph.

  • Pedro Martinez. The veteran made one start before heading to the DL. In his stead, Nelson Figueroa and Claudio Vargas have averaged 6½ innings a start and allowed 5.05 R/9, with lousy peripherals. As with Alou, Randolph is doing the best he can with the players he’s been given to replace the big-money ones who are unavailable.

    In Alou, Delgado, and Martinez, the Mets have three players to whom they’re paying $30.5 million, nearly a quarter of their payroll, and they’re getting less than nothing for their money. Is that Randolph, or is it Omar Minaya?

  • The bullpen. Randolph just doesn’t do this well. Scott Schoeneweis eviscerates lefties and can’t get righties out. He’s been used over the last month in multi-inning, usually mop-up, roles. In his career, Pedro Feliciano has been fairly successful against righties (.260/.350/.392). He’s averaging a little over three batters per outing in the specialist role. Aaron Heilman is just getting hammered, and if you want to blame Randolph for that, you can. Randolph used Heilman in the fifth inning last night, which seems to me a good way of getting him work in an effort to return him to form. Duaner Sanchez, who has pitched better than his 4.60 ERA indicates (five runs allowed in one appearance May 3 are skewing his stats; he’s only been scored upon in three of 17 appearances) can throw complete innings late in games in the interim.

    To his credit, Randolph does seem to be improving in his pen management. To pick one example, Joe Smith, a sidearming righty with Steve Reed-like platoon splits, has faced righties 78 percent of the time this season, a very high number. Last year, Randolph struggled to keep Schoeneweis and Jorge Sosa in roles where they could succeed. If he can simply flip Feliciano and Schoeneweis this year, work on getting Heilman back and become an aggressive manager with respect to matchups, he can turn this into an average, maybe a bit above average pen. The key is using pitchers in roles-not based on inning and score, but on skill set-in which they can succeed.

Willie Randolph is managing an aging, injury-prone roster that he did not assemble. While he clearly is responsible for some of the Mets’ problems, and he has not acquitted himself well of late, the biggest issues facing the team are the availability and performance of 20 percent of the payroll for an organization that does not have MLB-ready replacements on hand on its bench or in its farm system. Omar Minaya’s gambles on risky players paid off in 2006, but in 2008, they’re losing bets that are the biggest reasons for the Mets’ underachievement. This doesn’t mean he should be fired, either; it does mean that this management team should be permitted to finish what they started, mistakes and all.