It was not the ideal way to break into being a Big League Manager, but Rojas did a decent job with the hand he was dealt. When Robinson Cano wasn't hitting early in the season, Rojas wasn't afraid to move a (then) future Hall of Famer down in the lineup. Even when the PED's kicked in and Cano's offensive numbers merited moving back into a featured lineup slot, Rojas didn't hesitate to swap in a better defensive second baseman late in games. None of that was "Manager of the Year" level strategery, but it earned respect from me. I worried going into the season that Rojas might be a little too deferential to his stars, but he wasn't. After years of watching Terry Collins — a man with tons of Major League managerial experience — make that mistake time and again, Rojas was a breath of fresh air.
I didn't agree with every move Luis Rojas made during the season, but I thought he handled things well. The ghost of John McGraw wasn't going to be able to lead that group to a title. For the most part, Rojas came across as confident and decisive. I thought he had a decent chance of coming back for another year. There weren't any big-named no-brainers available on the managerial market, and Rojas hadn't done anything to suggest he wasn't up to the job. Still, Sandy Alderson didn't commit to Luis Rojas while he was still attempting to bring in a President of Baseball Operations from outside. Once that didn't happen, Alderson was comfortable with another year of Rojas.
It's become a truism to denigrate managers in today's game as "merely" glorified middle managers. Anyone who uses that as a putdown has never worked a middle management job. If they did, they'd realize that being an effective middle manager is nothing to sneer at. Holding down one of those positions and being successful means performing a juggling act of simultaneously keeping the people who work under you and your superiors happy. Try it sometime before you write it off as easy.
It's true that Major League managers no longer have the power that those of the past enjoyed. The front office is much more heavily involved in the day-to-day decisions that affect the roster, including who's playing and how players' workloads are managed. Instead of running a quasi-independent fiefdom, where a successful manager of the past could tell a GM to mind his own business, today's Major League manager is tasked with implementing others' policies while keeping an active roster of 26 players as happy as possible.
Particularly in a large market like New York, a manager must also function as a highly-skilled press secretary, satisfying the demands of a huge, varied media that cover the team. He must seem friendly and informative while avoiding saying something inartful that will immediately become a huge, negative story.
If a manager hopes to be successful, his players must feel that he has their backs. If a manager loses his clubhouse, it's only a matter of time before he loses his job. On the other hand, if a manager tries too hard to be friends with his players, he will lose their respect. Even if a manager is walking that line very well, he will probably at times be accused of coddling players by pundits who have an old-school mentality.
The Mets will be attempting to integrate more analysis and performance technology this season, as the new owner and front office attempt to drag this club from their former smug Neo-Luddism to the cutting edge. While it will be up to Steve Cohen, Sandy Alderson, and the brain trust to decide what gets implemented, it will be up to Rojas and his coaching staff to ensure this happens successfully.
While the manager carries the burden of the weight on his shoulders of the club's success or failure, the rest of the coaching staff has some significant challenges this season, too. For one thing, if Rojas doesn't cut it this year, he's likely not to be the only one headed for unemployment. One coach who is also under considerable pressure to "prove it" this year is pitching coach Jeremy Hefner.
Heffner enjoyed a huge free pass for 2020. What he was given at the start of the year seemed potentially adequate. However, injuries, opt-outs, and Brodie's awful roster management created a situation where it is almost impossible for those of us outside the club to evaluate the job that Heffner did this past season. He's been given so much more to work with in 2021. He's going to need successes with some of those pieces to prove that he is a Major League caliber pitching coach.
Some examples offhand, in no particular order:
- Overseeing David Peterson's continuing development, ensuring that he doesn't become yet another Mets' one-year wonder.
- Fostering the development of young starting pitchers picked up over the winter, including Joey Lucchesi and Jordan Yamamoto.
- Try to get the most of closer Edwin Díaz, avoiding major implosions.
- Work to get at least one of Jeurys Familia and/or Dellin Betances back to being an effective late-inning reliever. A solid bounce back from even one of the two would be a huge boost to the Mets' chances.
- Get something out of Robert Gsellman, who has shown real promise at times, despite an inability to sustain it.
- Help Trevor May and Aaron Loup get used to pitching in a new league.
- Get Miguel Castro, who has shown promise and is still only 26, to throw more strikes and become a potential strong late-inning option.
- Guide Sam McWilliams into being the good multi-inning reliever the Mets envisioned when they signed him this winter.
- Help Taijuan Walker maintain health and improve his pitching enough to sustain him as a successful back-end starter the next two years.
- In general, managing the workloads of all of the pitchers on his staff, and finding ways to competently cover all of the innings over a long season following on the heels of the weird, truncated 2020 campaign.
- Undoubtedly the Mets will be looking to integrate the latest performance building technology into their pitching program. Part of Heffner's responsibilities will be overseeing that essential transition.