Posted Wednesday, August 20, 2008
You’ll forgive Jerry Manuel if he beginning to wonder what he’s going to have to deal with next.
Manuel has spent much of the summer managing the Mets without two corner outfielders and his starting second baseman. He has handed the ball to eight different starting pitchers so far, and two of his regulars cannot be consistently relied upon to give him more than five good innings at a time right now. This would not be such a cause for concern if Manuel’s bullpen wasn’t turning the late innings of ballgames into a nightly carnival.
Now we get the news that Billy Wagner’s season may be over, the victim of a sore left elbow that just doesn’t seem to want to heal. Through it all, Manuel just smiles and keeps going back to the drawing board. The biggest reason why the Mets have a 1.5-game lead in the National League East with 36 games to go is because, two months into the job, Manuel continues to find answers to the Mets’ questions.
That’s why he deserves to manage this club in 2009 – Manuel has been creative enough and daring enough to overcome the obstacles created by numerous injuries and a poorly constructed roster. Plan B becomes Plan C becomes Plan What the Hell Do We Do Now?, but the Mets are still challenging for the division crown because their manager just keeps pushing the right buttons.
Under Manuel’s watch, Moises Alou and Ryan Church have given way to a combination of Nick Evans, Daniel Murphy and Fernando Tatis. Evans and Murphy, who started the season as two Double-A infielders off the radar of even the most ardent prospect hounds, are only here because the Triple-A roster features so little talent that no one could be reasonably expected to help the big club. Manuel plugged them into the lineup anyway, and to the shock and delight of Mets fans Evans and Murphy have formed like Voltron to become a fearsome platoon in left field.
Tatis, meanwhile, is capably holding down the fort on the other side of the outfield for the Mets. He’s another converted infielder who, at the beginning of the season, couldn’t even beat out Brady Clark for the last spot on the 25-man roster. Now he has chipped in 10 home runs in less than 80 games and can legitimately be included in the conversation for National League Comeback Player of the Year.
The pitching situation is more complicated, and Manuel has had fewer opportunities to make a positive mark there. John Maine’s sore shoulder may make it difficult for him to eat up innings for the rest of the season and Pedro Martinez is perpetually on the brink of missing a month due to injury or fatigue. Nevertheless, the emergence of Mike Pelfrey and Oliver Perez’s rediscovery of his incomparable stuff gives the Mets three solid rotation options to lean on. Manuel would do well to juggle his rotation around off days to give Pelfrey, Perez and Johan Santana extra starts down the stretch.
There is no obvious replacement for Wagner, but to his credit Manuel has not tried to find one. He has temporarily eschewed designating one pitcher for the traditional closer role and has done a good job trying to match up his mediocre relievers with situations they are most likely to succeed in. Four different Met relievers have earned saves since Wagner went down at the beginning of August, even as Aaron Heilman’s season-long struggles continue and Duaner Sanchez serves batting practice nearly every time he pitches.
The bullpen may be helped out by last weekend’s acquisition of reliever Luis Ayala, as general manager Omar Minaya’s quest to recreate the roster of the 2003 Montreal Expos comes closer to fruition. Ayala’s two-batter stint on Tuesday night made him the sixth former Expo to suit up for the Mets this season. Youppi! would be proud.
Ayala is a good low-risk pickup, since his track record suggests that he can be a reasonably effective middle relief option who can pitch multiple innings and will not have to be hidden from left-handed batters. Still, he is suffering through the worst season of his five-year career and he’s unlikely to be a savior for the Mets’ bullpen. Manuel will have to use him judiciously and avoid falling in love with his new toy.
When Ryan Church and Luis Castillo are re-activated, perhaps before the end of the week, Manuel will suddenly have to juggle the lineup on a daily basis to give everyone enough at-bats. Church will likely take over right field for as long as he can keep the post-concussion symptoms at bay; Tatis will probably take Evans’ spot in the left field platoon. Murphy was taking grounders at second base before he was recalled, so perhaps he and Castillo can split time against righties so the veteran can keep his surgically repaired legs moderately fresh.
Fitting five worthy players into three positions will be yet another test of Manuel’s managerial acumen. His future with the Mets will be determined in part by how he dishes out the playing time down the stretch and how he manages the pitching staff to get the most out of his hurlers.
Ultimately, Jerry Manuel’s task is still the same as it was when he became the manager in mid-June – to get the Mets into the post-season, come hell or high water. The feel-good story of the summer still needs a happy ending, because it’s hard to envision Manuel running the team next season if the Mets can’t hold off the Philadelphia Phillies in the N.L. East.
Considering the job he has done patching together a winning team over the last two months, Manuel has earned the right to return to the Mets no matter what happens from here on out.
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