Tag: jerry manuel

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a time-honored adage that applies in many situations.

old_dog_new_tricks.jpgFor example, you wouldn’t expect to be able to teach a 10-year-old dog how to ride a bicycle, if he hasn’t even learned how to sit. It’s just too late — a dog that age is already set in his ways, and did his learning during his formative, puppy years.

Similarly, it’s simply too late in the game to ask a 33-year-old, 14-year MLB veteran to suddenly change his entire offensive approach — such as in the case of Luis Castillo.

Only three times in 14 years has Castillo driven in as many as 40 runs in a season. It’s not what he does. Rather, Castillo is a “table setter”, a guy who finds a way to get on base. He takes a lot of pitches, looks for walks, bunts, and punches little bloops all over the field. His career OBP of .367 would make a Billy Beane disciple drool, and he also has above-average baserunning speed, even at his advanced age. As an added bonus, he plays one of the “skill” positions. In any era, from the 1880s to now, a second baseman with Luis Castillo’s skillset would be a valuable piece of a championship ballclub. His game is not unlike that of Jim “Junior” Gilliam of the great Dodgers teams in the 1960s, Nellie Fox, Johnny Pesky, Willie Randolph, or Chuck Knoblauch. Yes, in the steroid era, his power numbers are feeble, but he’s not supposed to be a star. Used correctly — at the top of the lineup — he’s an ideal complement to a lineup of power hitters. His patience makes a starting pitcher use and show his full arsenal of pitches in the first inning, and his ability to get on base sets the stage for the sluggers.

Or, you could just put him wherever you damn well feel like in the lineup and ask him to completely change his approach and mindset at the plate. Just don’t be stunned or disappointed when he begins the season 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.

Yet, here we are, after four games, and Luis Castillo’s job is being called into question by pundits, the media, the blogosphere, and possibly even his manager Jerry Manuel — ironically, the man who has put him into position to fail. Castillo, after all, is hitting only .100, and there’s all those LOBs. Surely he’s the reason the Mets have lost two games this year. There are already calls for Alex Cora to take over the second sack. Yes, the same Alex Cora who is a career .245 hitter (.312 OBP), the same man who drove in all of 9 runs last year in 179 ABs, the same Cora who, in his career, has hit .249 with runners in scoring position. Sounds like a great plan.

Hold on, folks. Let’s look at this in perspective — even taking away the fact that Castillo is in the wrong spot of the order. HE HAS ONLY TEN AT-BATS. He’s 1-for-10 thus far. That’s basically two ballgames. Do you know how many times David Wright, Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran will get only one hit over ten at-bats at some point this season?

Consider this: David Wright, one of the Mets’ key RBI men, is currently 0-for-4 with RISP. Does that mean Fernando Tatis should be starting at third soon? Danny Murphy is also 0-for-4 with RISP, so should Jeremy Reed (who is hitting 1.000 with RISP) be taking over in left field?

But we’re getting off the point here. The point is, no one should be surprised that Castillo is failing in his current role of #8 hitter. He’s completely misplaced, batting in a position where he frequently appears with runners on base. One of his best skills — bunting — is completely useless batting ahead of the pitcher. It’s a bad fit, and it’s irresponsible to ask him to suddenly be something completely opposite of what’s he’s been for the past 13 years.

I’m not saying you change your entire lineup to make Luis Castillo fit better. Rather, I’m saying you take a look at the skillsets of the players you have, and find a way to make them best work together. Danny Murphy has proven he can hit no matter where he is in the lineup, so how about moving him — a relative puppy — into a position in the order where his potent bat can be better used? Luis Castillo will never be an RBI guy, but Murphy might learn to be. Sure, Murphy might turn out to be a high OBP guy as well, but won’t the lineup be stronger if he’s further down in the lineup, both getting on base AND driving in runs?

Oh and hey, for those not paying attention — Castillo played in only one of the Mets’ losses this year. Alex Cora was the second baseman in the Mets’ loss to the Reds on Thursday afternoon.


Pelfrey Looking Sharp

Mike Pelfrey turned in an outstanding performance against the Astros in the most recently televised spring training game, showing exactly why many people are looking at him as the Mets’ #2 starter.

The two things that most impressed me about Pelfrey in this particular outing were his ability to change speeds and his supreme confidence. This time last year, Pelfrey was pitching scared, thinking too much, and picking around the plate. In this game, his manner and body language oozed with confidence, and he looked like he had a plan. The curveball was dropping nicely at an 11-to-5 angle and staying around the strike zone, at a 75-MPH speed — which maybe is a little too slow, but hey, he’s still shaking the dust off it. Pelf also started to hammer his sinker in on the hands of lefthanded hitters — a new concept, since he has always in the past tended to stay on the third-base side of the plate with that pitch. A number of pundits are already getting silly about the “new” pitch (the NY Times coined it a “front-door sinker”), but really it’s the same sinker he’s always thrown, but he’s now spotting it on the other side of the plate. I’m liking it.

In addition to Pelfrey’s performance, Nick Evans continues to make roster decisions difficult for manager Jerry Manuel. Evans is driving the ball with power, spraying to all fields, and showing patience at the plate. His fielding is still a bit suspect, but you can’t knock him for his effort — he’s a hustler. Taken out of the optimism of Port St. Lucie, Evans looks like he could evolve into a “mistake hitter” — the kind of guy who can jack a pitcher’s mistake over the fence. At the same time, he has some holes in his swing and will get overmatched by hard fastballs inside. I love the kid, and am rooting for him, but it’s going to be tough to carry him on a roster that includes 11-12 pitchers and at least one backup catcher. Those 3-4 bench players have to be versatile, and bring more than one tool to the table. Alex Cora and Fernando Tatis have two of those spots sewn up, and you have to figure at least one other spot goes to either one of the defensive-minded outfielders in camp, or Marlon Anderson (another guy who can play multiple positions). Evans’ glove just isn’t strong enough at either 1B or in the OF, and he doesn’t have the speed of a pinch-runner, so he either has to win a platoon job (not happening) or hope for an injury, to go north in April.

Speaking of Tatis, a strange comment by Keith Hernandez during the SNY broadcast of Thursday’s game, in regard to how Tatis’ versatility can be used to keep people fresh:

“One thing we know about Jerry Manuel, Jerry Manuel likes to REST HIS REGULARS”.

For the record, Keith, here are some of the “regulars”, and their games played in 2008:

Jose Reyes: 159
David Wright: 160
Carlos Delgado: 159
Carlos Beltran: 161
Brian Schneider: 110

Of course, the other positions — LF, RF, 2B — were originally supposed to be manned by players who ended up on the DL for extensive periods (Moises Alou, Ryan Church, and Luis Castillo). So other than Schneider, who missed games due to minor injuries eight different times during the season, the “regulars” certainly didn’t get rest. Manuel TALKED about resting the regulars when he took over the club last June, but never actually FOLLOWED THROUGH with that plan. Funny though, how some people’s words speak louder than actions.


5 Early Warning Signs from Port St. Lucie

1. Johan’s Elbow

Make no mistake — Johan Santana has a problem with his elbow and it is going to be an issue for the entire season. Santana is a throwback, a tough guy who takes the ball, sacrifices himself for the team, and pitches through pain.

I’m a former player myself, and I can tell you firsthand that badasses such as Johan and myself go to the trainer to complain about an injury only when it’s become unbearable, and only as a last resort. The fact that Johan not only went to the Mets’ training staff to bring up an issue, but that it became public knowledge, throws up a dozen red flags.

I have two conspiracy theories. One, that Johan continues to pitch with pain, but feels he needs to earn his obnoxious contract and grin and bear it. Two, that the Mets won’t send Johan for an MRI because they’re afraid it might show damage, and they’ll have to shut him down. No Johan means no chance in hell that the Mets make the postseason, which in turn means season ticket sales grind to a screeching halt in an already depressed economy, and Citi Field doesn’t enjoy a record-breaking debut.

2. John Maine’s Shoulder … and Mechanics

Maine developed scar tissue and eventually, a cyst, on his shoulder due to a minor mechanical flaw in his deliverya flaw that can be corrected. However, neither the Mets nor Maine did anything to correct the flaw, which by the way also adversely affects his command. Unless someone wakes up and tells Maine to break his hands in the middle of his body instead of behind his right hip, we’ll watch another inconsistent season of 5-inning outings and 12-pitch at-bats.

3. JJ Putz’s Fastball

When the Mets acquired Putz, the scouting report was that this was one of the top closers in all of MLB, with a “filthy” breaking ball and 95-96 MPH heat. In his first appearance as a Met in Port St. Lucie, Putz was barely able to break 89 MPH, and reached that only a few times. He had a similarly underwhelming debut for Team USA. Now, we know it can take a while for a flamethrower to build up his strength, but the fact he’s struggling to reach 90 MPH is a major concern.

4. The Back End of the Rotation

Normally we wouldn’t worry too much about the #5 spot in the rotation. However, we’re looking at the possibility of chronic elbow issues from the ace, and inconsistency from #4 man John Maine — which means the back end needs to pick up the slack. So far, Freddy Garcia has looked awful, Livan Hernandez even worse, and Tim Redding has yet to take the mound due to a shoulder injury. The next men on the totem pole — Jon Niese and Bobby Parnell — are at best average prospects and have less than 20 big league innings of experience between them.

5. Jerry Manuel’s Mouth

The honeymoon is nearly over. Manuel has reigned as a media darling ever since taking over the Mets last June. However, comments and cajoling that previously were presented as “zen-like”, charming, and “a breath of fresh air” are starting — though ever so quietly — to be questioned. Manuel has always been known as engaging with the media — much to the chagrin of his players. His loose lips helped sink the ship in Chicago, as his constant calling out of players eventually created a tense and resentful clubhouse.

A similar pattern began in the initial days at Port St. Lucie, when Manuel told reporters that Daniel Murphy was a “better hitter” than Ryan Church. Even if that statement were true, it’s not the type of thing you go around boasting about. Only a week later, NY Post writer Bart Hubbuch compiled a long list of Manuel’s missteps with the media (interestingly, the post was generally ignored by the rest of the media and most Mets blogs). It’s not even mid-March yet, and Manuel’s already marred his managerial tenure with his mouth.

Go ahead, paint me the negative Nelly. But the above five issues could be pebbles in one shoe of the Mets, leaving them hobbling around on one foot through the 2009 season.


The Team Concept

Over the past two weeks, I’ve read, heard, and watched a multitude of journalists, radio jocks, bloggers, and TV personalities tell me that THIS YEAR, the Mets are really, really focused on establishing the “team concept” — thanks to the remarkable leadership of manager Jerry Manuel.

Manuel presented the “team-first” mentality on the first day in spring training, and has been relentless in making sure that everyone understands that the 2009 Mets will abide by this philosophy. Further, Manuel has put into effect a number of drills emphasizing fundamentals — such as hitting to the opposite field, placing bunts, taking the extra base, and fielding the ball with two hands — and is encouraging his players to be more aggressive on the bases.

This is great news, and a stark contrast to previous years, when previous manager Willie Randolph was always pushing his players to be individuals, poo-pooed fundamentals as “inconsequential details”, rewarded batters for pulling the ball, and insisted that baserunners anchor to the bag and only advance one base at a time.

Wait …. that’s not true … not true at all …

Amazingly, the honeymoon continues for Jerry Manuel, the manager who led the New York Mets to their second consecutive collapse yet is being given the benefit of the doubt in his first spring training as skipper of the team.

Yeah, yeah, I’m Mr. Negative. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been jaded by the rose-colored optimism of springs past. Though, I really believe I would have an easier time being upbeat and positive about this team if I wasn’t constantly reminded that everything good about it is the direct result of Jerry Manuel’s Ghandi-like wisdom, and everything bad is the fault of players who don’t embrace zen-Buddhism.

Truth is, I’m not that negative, just annoyed — I’d like to watch, judge, and enjoy the team on my own, without every idiotic talking head telling me what I should think. I’m actually quite happy about baseball returning to my TV screen, and looking forward to a fun season.


Can Castillo Play Under Manuel?

We’ve heard the buzz for some time, and now we’ve got it from the horse’s mouth.

“If Castillo remains with us, my job is to make him the best player he can possibly be.”

If Castillo remains with us? Are you kidding me? Is that a threat? A promise? Some kind of lament?

Certainly not exactly a ringing endorsement. Reading into that statement, it sounds like Jerry Manuel will not be pleased if Luis Castillo is a Met come spring training. If that indeed is the case, why would Manuel be so irresponsible as to say what he did? Didn’t he realize that the New York media would pounce all over it and broadcast it through every imaginable vehicle? And once that happened, how much more difficult is Omar Minaya’s job of finding Castillo a new home? It was already a near-impossible task, but now that any shred of doubt has been removed that his own manager would prefer that Castillo not return, how is Minaya supposed to make a deal?

Here’s what Manuel just did with that statement: established that the Mets either will have to start the season with Castillo at second base, or eat his entire contract. At best, they may be able to include him as a throw-in to a deal focusing on another player, AND eat at least 60% of the $18M left on his contract. Yes, the Mets have money to spend, but one thing the Wilpons hate to do is pay people who are not employed by the organization. And they’re already bristling at the thought of paying Willie Randolph and Billy Wagner next year.

But what’s really at issue here is a.) Manuel’s lack of support for someone on his team; and b.) Manuel’s consistently inconsistent stands on issues and his players. It began from his first day on the job, when he vowed to assign roles to the bullpen — then did the exact opposite. His reaction to Castillo has been similar. Back in June 2008, Manuel hoped that Luis Castillo would be a role model for Jose Reyes. And as recently as early November, Manuel said this about Castillo in The New York Times:

“Obviously, it was a difficult season for him,” Manuel said. “As we sit here today, I’m sure being the competitor that he is, he’ll try to do everything he can to impress the people in New York. Physically, he’s got to be ready, but I also think for him, mentally, too, because of the kind of things he had to endure, dealing with not playing and dealing with the reception he got.”

In a recent interview on SNY, Jon Heyman stated that Manuel “didn’t get along with him when he was in Florida, didn’t particularly like him, and would like him traded …”

Interesting quip by the heir apparent to Peter Gammons as “Mr. Inside Source”, but I have to take issue with Heyman’s statement — because Manuel coached Castillo for only one year, and it was OVER TEN YEARS AGO, when Castillo was a 21-year-old rookie. In fact, Castillo only played in 75 games that year. People can change, can’t they? Particularly immature kids in their early 20s? I’d be surprised if Manuel didn’t like Castillo today for the same reasons of a dozen years ago — and if he holds a grudge that long, I’d hate to think what happens if anyone else gets on his bad side.

While it’s nothing new to see a manager’s dislike for a current player become public, it is a strange move by a man who has yet to attain success as a field general. And by success I mean win a pennant. Manuel does have a ring from being the bench coach of the 1997 Marlins, but when fully in charge, his teams have repeatedly “just missed” — his White Sox finished in second place four times, in third once, and in first once. That one time they won the division, they were swept in three games by the Wild-Card Mariners.

My point here is, I don’t mind if Dick Williams calls out Steve Rogers, even if it’s a flawed decision — because Williams had won several titles and wore World Series rings. If Billy Martin says Larry Gura is a sissy, then I’m going to back Martin’s assessment. When Scott Rolen has issues playing for Tony LaRussa, guess whose next address is in Canada? And if Ozzie Guillen thinks Javier Vazquez isn’t a big-game pitcher, I do what Ken Williams does and jettison Javy. But when a consistent second-place finisher — and one whose mismanagement resulted in the second-worst late-season collapse in the franchise’s history — has a problem with one of his players … well, I’m sorry but his opinion doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as those who have led champions.

Jerry Manuel’s 2008 honeymoon ended in mid-September. The quotes that were cute last May and June won’t be so endearing in 2009 if the Mets aren’t sitting at the top of the division. Should the Mets open the season with Luis Castillo as the starting second baseman, how is that going to play out with Manuel? We’re three months away from spring training, and already Jerry wants him gone — so if he doesn’t go, there may be an internal problem to kick off Opening Day. Does it make sense to begin a season in turmoil? The uphill climb is hard enough after two straight collapses and improved competition.

Of course, this article becomes completely moot if Luis Castillo is moved this winter. But if he isn’t, this speck of a comment could snowball into an icy issue.