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The Strike Zone

The strange situation of Mets manager Terry Collins

Terry Collins, Mets Without enough good players, Terry Collins is in a tough spot in New York. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

It’s time once again for New York’s annual belated realization that the Mets aren’t going to be good this season, and for the accompanying mutterings that something should be done. Speculating on manager Terry Collins’ job security has become an early-summer tradition. At 29-35 and five games out of a playoff spot entering Wednesday, the Mets need a change, don’t they? They do.

Firing Collins, however, is one change that isn't going to happen. The Mets' mediocrity has much less to do with Collins than it does with the franchise's money problems and resulting inability to field a group of players that can realistically compete for a playoff spot. General manager Sandy Alderson, who has absorbed his own share of blame for issues that are largely out of his control, knows that as well as anyone, and he met with Collins on Tuesday to reassure the manager that he wasn't in danger. "He's not going anywhere," Alderson told reporters.

Collins is in an odd spot. No one could say that he has an easy job, yet despite managing in New York’s usually hot spotlight, he does seem to have a relatively secure one, cushioned by the low expectations that have settled in around this financially troubled team. (And by his two-year contract; it’s not a rich one, reportedly just over $1 million a season, but every dollar counts for this franchise – just ask Kyle Farnsworth.) In a different era, a Mets manager with his record (254-296) would have been gone long ago, but these days the team is fighting with one hand – the one holding the checkbook – tied behind its back, and despite the occasional protestations of its owners, Fred and Jeff Wilpon, everyone knows it. The owners are in debt for hundreds of millions of dollars, including more than $600 million owed against their TV network, SNY, which comes due next year.

The funny thing is that Collins’ spot will become precarious when the team eventually does become properly competitive again, when the Mets are in a position where a jolt of new blood or a few extra wins a year might actually make a difference. In other words, barring some unexpected clubhouse disaster, Collins is secure as long as the team is hopeless. When hope returns, he’ll have to worry.

Assuming Collins makes it through the season and the Mets finish under .500, he will become the franchise's first manager to rack up four straight losing seasons since one Joseph Paul Torre did it from 1978-81. (As for that other New York team, the last time the Yankees had four losing seasons in a row was 1989-92; three different managers oversaw that stretch).  It would be an unusual run, but then, these are unusual circumstances.

Even Collins' problem spots this year haven't entirely been his fault. His bullpen management has been questionable at times -- sticking with Jenrry Mejia or other struggling pitchers too long as leads slip away -- but then what possible management of a group that in 2014 has included Farnsworth, Jose Valverde and Scott Rice could have produced good results? The lineups have been less than ideal for stretches too, with Eric Young Jr. getting playing time over promising young outfielder Juan Legares head-scratchingly often earlier this season; but making out the Mets’ batting order every day this year -- when their best player has been Daniel Murphy, when even David Wright has underwhelmed and when the team is hitting .222/.303/.333 at home -- is more or less an exercise in futility. And there are still holes that are not of his making. Collins doesn’t have an established backup catcher available because as one team source told the New York Daily News, “We allocated our spending to other areas.”

The Mets’ Pythagorean Record – essentially, what you’d expect their record to be based on their runs scored and allowed – is 32-32, which means they’re currently underperforming by a few games. It’s fair to lay part of that at the feet of Collins’ managerial choices, but more of it is due to the lousy bullpen and the struggling offense (the Mets are second to last in slugging percentage in the NL), and the largest chunk is probably luck. If so, that’s a positive sign that the Mets may be better than their record shows. But note that better, for this team, is still just mediocre.  If ace Matt Harvey hadn’t been hurt, they might have been in the running for something more . . . but he is, and without the addition last offseason of enough other elite talent, you get a team for which cracking .500 will stand as a moral victory.

The difference between the best and worst tactical managers in the majors is usually no more than a handful of games – which might be absolutely crucial in a pennant race, but realistically won’t matter much for this year’s Mets.  Instead, what Collins has done well over the last few rough years is keep his team from spiraling out of control over the long, losing seasons. It was clear by this time last year, if not before, that his club wasn't going anywhere, but it actually had a slightly better winning percentage in the second half of the season than it did in the first. (Not a good one, because it was not a good team -- but it was also not a team that had quit on its manager.) In the last couple of seasons New York has often battled back from deficits, even if they don’t usually go on to actually, you know, win. The spirit is willing, but the talent is weak.

If it’s unfair to pin all or even most of the Mets’ problems on Collins, it’s also a good sign for the team's future that fans and reporters are still interested in assigning blame at all. After everything this team has been through, and in what may be a sixth straight losing season, at least people still care. The real danger to the Mets will be when fans no longer bother to complain.

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