By Mike Steffanos
In his Daily Scoop column today at SI.com, Jon Heyman doesn't travel very far out on a limb when he pronounces Mets manager Jerry Manuel as "on the hot seat."
I'm going to preface what I say next by noting that I am not a "quick trigger" guy when it comes to managers and coaches. Too many get fired simply for the sake of making a change, and usually any improvement in the team's performance that comes as a result of these firings inevitably proves to be short-lived.
Count me among those that believe that managers don't make a huge difference in baseball. The vast majority of the games are won by players on the field, with in-game strategy counting for a tiny percentage of all decisions. I'll take a very good team with a mediocre manager any time over a mediocre team with a top manager.
That being said, managers tend to outlive their usefulness at a rate inversely proportional to whatever skills they bring to the table. That's why Davey Johnson was here for so many more years than Jeff Torborg or Art Howe.
I'll give Jerry Manuel credit for lightening the mood of this team when he took over for Willie Randolph, but there was always a question of how much of that was due to Manuel's talent as a manager and how much was simply the pressure released when Mets management finally made a decision on Randolph.
When Manuel took over in June of 2008, the Mets did start playing a lot better not very long afterwards. While the club's ultimate failure to make the playoffs was mainly due to a bullpen that suffered from a little too much wishful thinking and the loss of its closer for the last two months, I felt Manuel's inartful management of that 'pen contributed to its ultimate failure.
There was no doubt that Manuel was playing a bad hand with that bullpen down the stretch, but his "playing the hot hand" and quick trigger led to an exhausted bullpen that compounded its own inadequacies.
Manuel had a much better bullpen to at least start 2009, but some of the same tendencies were there. For instance, when Bobby Parnell got off to a strong start he was out there almost every day, and I believe that contributed to Parnell's later struggles.
While it is a fair argument to give Jerry some slack for all of the injuries the Mets suffered, the Mets didn't exactly exude the aura of a team that came to play every night once the bottom started falling out. In that respect, I can't give him a complete pass based on injuries.
So, essentially in a season and a half at the helm, Manuel has demonstrated to me below average skills in managing a bullpen, a tendency to overuse some players while practically forgetting others, and no particular ability to get the most out of the players he has.
He's made some strange statements to the press about some of his current and former players. If these statements were for motivational purposes they've failed and, in the case of former Met Ryan Church, have come across as weirdly spiteful and purposeless.
Other than the fact that he can be very funny and personable most of the time with the media, I can't really think of one skill that Manuel has demonstrated that have earned him one last shot as a manager this season. What I fear is that, as with Willie Randolph before him, Manuel will be fired at some point this season and we'll all be wondering why so much time and energy was wasted before the inevitable became reality. Jerry comes across as a nice guy, but so did Art Howe.
The Mets would have been better off with a clean slate and a new manager who wasn't forced to try to win this season with a team that doesn't really look like it's built to win this year.
Even if things go really well -- say Pelfrey, Maine and Perez pitch well, the bullpen performs and the Mets get enough offense to truly contend -- how much more I'd hope for a stronger and more capable hand on the tiller.
I suspect the real reason Manuel was brought back was to provide Minaya and the Wilpons with some cover. If things get ugly they could buy themselves some time by firing Jerry, then if they don't turn around the Wilpons will still have Minaya's head to offer to the angry mob.