The most important question facing anyone hired as manager of the Yankees or Mets is if they can handle New York, and Jerry Manuel is doing just fine in his first full season as the Mets’ manager after being promoted from bench coach last June to replace Willie Randolph. Manuel has won over the New York media with his easygoing demeanor, friendly nature, and quirky comments. The experience of having managed the White Sox in a large market for six season from 1998-2003 has certainly helped.
Manuel’s biggest challenge lately would be daunting to any skipper, whether he worked in New York or Nome. He has had to try to piece together a lineup that’s missing four regulars; first baseman Carlos Delgado is out until at least the All-Star break after undergoing hip surgery two weeks ago, shortstop Jose Reyes is at the Mets’ spring training base in Port St. Lucie, Florida, rehabbing a strained calf and hoping to return to the active roster this week, right fielder Ryan Church is on the disabled list with a strained hamstring, and center fielder Carlos Beltran has missed the last three games with a nasty stomach virus that he apparently caught from starting pitcher John Maine, who was forced to leave Sunday’s game against the Marlins after six scoreless innings when nature suddenly called.
All of the injury news was trumped on Tuesday when the Mets learned that a member of their traveling party, an unidentified television production worker, was being quarantined because of the possibility he had contracted swine flu. The Mets said that the bug that Maine and Beltran had caught is unrelated.
Through it all, the Mets are persevering, as they are 28-23 and in second place in the National League East, 2½ games behind the Phillies. “We’ve had to do it a little differently than we expected,” said Manuel. “We’ve really had to rely on pitching. We’re missing a lot of our offense, but we’re still competitive and able to win ballgames and it’s all because our pitchers, on the whole, are doing a heckuva job.”
The Mets rebuilt their bullpen in the offseason after losing closer Billy Wagner to Tommy John surgery last year when they had a second straight September meltdown and again blew a lead to the Phillies in the NL East. They signed Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez, who set a major league record with 62 saves last season, to a three-year, $36 million contract as a free agent, and they traded for Mariners closer J.J. Putz, the American League saves leader with 40 in 2007, to serve as the set-up man. Rodriguez has been exceptional, with a 2.505 WXRL that leads the major leagues, while Putz has been a disappointment with a 0.400 mark. Pedro Feliciano is among the majors’ best left-handed relievers with a 1.146 WXRL. Pick a different poison, and their Fair Runs Allowed marks tell the same story: K-Rod’s at 1.96, Feliciano at 2.96, but Puts trails far behind with a 4.71 mark.
General Manager Omar Minaya was criticized heavily in New York and beyond for not acquiring an impact starting pitcher. He refused to go to a fourth year on Derek Lowe, who wound up getting it from the Braves along with a $60 million contract as a free agent, and the Mets instead re-signed erratic left-hander Oliver Perez.
The move has backfired miserably to this point; Perez has -0.4 SNLVAR and is yet another player on the DL, with tendonitis in his right knee. Meanwhile, Lowe has been his usual durable self with 1.8 SNLVAR for the Braves. At least Johan Santana has pitched to his billing as ace with 2.5 SNLVAR, while Livan Hernandez (1.4), John Maine (1.2), and Mike Pelfrey (1.2) have also contributed, but to what has been an essentially mediocre unit, ranking 14th in the majors in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage with a .522 mark, that in addition to their ranking an equally mediocre 16th in Defensive Efficiency with a .687 mark.
To continue their run of mid-pack achievement, the Mets are 13th in runs scored with 4.8 runs per game, but that’s a reflection of Citi Field’s pitcher-friendliness in the early going; in Equivalent Average the team ranks fourth in the majors with a .277 mark. Beltran (.347) and Wright (.315) have played like the superstars that the team was built around, while 40-year-old outfielder Gary Sheffield (.324) has provided a big boost after signing as a free agent late in spring training following his release by the Tigers. “I always felt that the only thing keeping me from still being a productive hitter was my health,” said Sheffield, who had a .259 EqA last season after undergoing shoulder surgery the previous offseason. “I’m healthy again and my bat speed is back. There was a never a doubt in my mind that I could still hit.”
Meanwhile, Manuel has had to scramble to put lineups together in the wake of the injuries and illness. Daniel Murphy, who moved from the infield to the outfield during spring training after bouncing between the two, is now back on infield dirt as the primary first baseman with Delgado out. Manuel has used three different shortstops while Reyes has been on the DL, juggling journeymen utility players Ramon Martinez, Alex Cora, and Wilson Valdez. It doesn’t appear to bother Manuel, however, who feels he is a better manager in his second time on the job. “When I got fired in Chicago, I looked around for a long time trying to figure out who to blame,” Manuel said. “A year later, I was still looking. After two years, I realized there was no one to blame but me. I made my mistakes, and I feel I’ve learned from them. I’m just grateful to have a second chance to do this.”
If the name of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, President Barack Obama’s first nominee for the Supreme Court, sounds familiar to baseball fans, there is a reason. She has a definite connection to the game, as she was responsible for ending the players’ strike in March, 1995, just days before Major League Baseball was about to go through with its plan of beginning the regular season with replacement players after using them throughout spring training. Sotomayor was a federal district court judge in Manhattan when she issued a temporary injunction that restored baseball’s previous labor rules after being faced with a petition filed by the National Labor Relations Board that sought a finding of unfair labor practices by the owners.
The Major League Baseball Players Association had struck in August, 1994 because it felt that the owners would impose a salary cap, which they in fact did. Though the owners withdrew the cap in early 1995, they abolished salary arbitration, centralized all negotiations with MLB, and ended an agreement not to collude on salaries. Sotomayor sided with the players: “The harm to the players is the very one the owners’ unfair labor practices sought to achieve, i.e., an alteration of free-agency rights and a skewing of their worth. Issuing the injunction before Opening Day is important to ensure that the symbolic value of that day is not tainted by an unfair labor practice and the NLRB’s inability to take effective steps against its perpetuation.”
MLBPA executive director Donald Fehr stopped short of agreeing with President Obama’s assertion that Sotomayor had saved baseball, but he does acknowledge her role in getting the players back on the field. “Her ruling did not produce an agreement, but it gave the parties time to get on with normal business and get back to the bargaining table and produce an agreement” Fehr told Richard Sandomir of the New York Times. “If it hadn’t ended when she ended it, it would have gone on for some time, and it would have gotten uglier and uglier.”
Speaking of the great players’ strike, some fans have yet to forgive commissioner Bud Selig for canceling the 1994 postseason, but his popularity has taken a turn for the better over the years. If you don’t believe it, just ask him. “Since taking over in 1992, it’s been an era of the greatest change in baseball history,” Selig told the Arizona Republic‘s Dan Bickley. “And it had been a sport with almost no change for four decades prior. We revamped the economic system, which leveled the field tremendously and helped some clubs stay afloat. We also implemented drug testing, an issue on which every one of my predecessors had been rebuffed. And I know my own persistence and drive forced the whole thing.”
Selig says that the public’s reaction to last month’s suspension of Dodgers superstar left fielder Manny Ramirez for 50 games for testing positive for steroids has been overwhelmingly positive. That leads Selig to believe that MLB’s drug-testing program is working, even if it does still have its critics. “The mail has been remarkably nice since Manny Ramirez,” said Selig. “What did it prove? It proves the system works. We’ve had over 1,300 tests this year, and there’s been one positive: Manny Ramirez. In the last three years, we’ve had eight positive tests. We’re leading the fight to find a test for human growth hormone, and whatever we get, it’s going in [the Collective Bargaining Agreement]. The reason fans have responded to me the way they have is because we have nothing to hide. We spent a lot of money on the Mitchell Report. We’ve fought the players union every step of the way, and to this day, they still haven’t responded to a single letter or phonecall from George [Mitchell]. But our minor league testing program is in its ninth year and that means all the great young players in baseball, from Ryan Howard to Ryan Braun, have all been tested for nine years. There’s a system in place, and it’s working. We know we have the toughest testing program in major league sports.”
The macho world of MLB has slowly come around to admitting that some of its players face mental-health issues. Three players have been placed on the disabled list this season because of anxiety issues: Tigers left-hander Dontrelle Willis, Cardinals shortstop Khalil Greene, and Reds first baseman Joey Votto.
In the case of Greene, one team might file a grievance against another for the first time for what it feels is the failure to disclose a player’s mental condition. The Cardinals believe that the Padres did not properly forewarn them about Greene’s problem when they traded for him last winter. Greene had a .215 EqA in 423 plate appearances last year before his season ended when he suffered a broken hand after punching an equipment trunk in the Padres’ clubhouse.
On the one hand, it was not exactly the best-kept secret in baseball that Greene had trouble handling failure, and many clubs had rejected offers when the Padres dangled Greene in trade talks. On the other hand, the Cardinals believe that the Padres should have revealed the depths of Greene’s anxiety disorder just as clubs are required to disclose physical injuries before making trades.
Cardinals GM John Mozeliak told Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his club is installing “a new filter” for looking at similar situations in the future. “I think whenever you experience these types of things you have to look at how the decision was made,” Mozeliak said. “Is there a new filter or an additional filter you add to avoid something like this going forward? I think that’s something to talk about.”
Scouts’ views on various major league players:
Indians right-hander Fausto Carmona: “If I were the Indians, I would send him down to the minors and make him earn his way back. He needs to get his mechanics back. He needs to learn to throw strikes again. He really needs to get in shape, too. It’s hard to believe this guy was one of the best pitchers in baseball just two years ago.”
Brewers third baseman Mat Gamel: “This kid can really hit, just a natural-born hitter. I don’t know if his defense will ever catch up, but the bat is so special that you can live with him being below average in other areas.”
Blue Jays right-hander Casey Janssen: “I’ve never understood why they use him as a starter, because he doesn’t have the stuff to go through a lineup three or four times in a game. For me, he’s a good middle reliever where you bring him in around the sixth inning and ask him to hold the fort for an inning or two.”
Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick: “I’ve about given up on the idea that this guy is going to be one of the better pure hitters in the game. He has holes in his swing and you can get him to chase a lot of bad pitches. The worst part is he never improves.”
Red Sox right-hander Brad Penny: “He’s definitely not the same pitcher he was a couple of years ago. He has lost a few ticks on his fastball and his pitches don’t have the same life anymore. He’s still serviceable, but he used to be really good.”
Rays left-hander David Price: “He has a few rough edges to polish, but his fastball is electric and jumps on hitters. You better start your swing as soon as you walk away from the on-deck circle against this guy.”
Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez: “I don’t think he’s been 100 percent all season because of various injuries, but I’d take him at 75 percent over almost anyone else. We haven’t seen the best of him yet. He’s still improving.”
Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki: “The guy is just amazing to watch with his ability to put the bat on the ball. He’s been in this country nine years now, but I still find him to be as entertaining now as when he was a rookie.”
Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups: