PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Perpetually easygoing Mets manager Jerry Manuel may one day lose his job -- maybe even sooner than later -- but he will never lose his sense of humor.
In an incongruously happy Mets camp, where some seem to border on delusional, Manuel engaged in a bit of gallows humor that fit his sticky situation. When one writer whimsically suggested that the first ever Mets' no-hitter could occur this July 13, and Manuel was asked what he would say about this, the manager responded, "I might be calling you from California.''
Manuel, a Sacramento resident, was suggesting that he might no longer be in New York by then. He has humor, plenty of perspective and he also knows the score.
Later, he coolly backed away from that statement when pressed about what could have been construed as a dire prediction. "I was talking about the All-Star break,'' he said with a chuckle, which happens to take place July 12-14.
The man is nothing if not quick. If he thinks on his feet like that, he might stick around the whole year, and he may even have his 2011 option picked up. It's amazing how relaxed he seems. Because it's no stretch to think that he may have the most tenuous position in baseball.
"We've got to do well,'' Manuel said.
That goes for himself and his team. Manuel knows that he needs a strong start after a season in which the Mets won only 70 games, which his Mets' bosses describe as "poor.'' The Mets were devastated by injuries like no other team, but lapses in defense and baserunning were noted, too, as partly reflections on Manuel, whose superb 55-38 finish in 2008 seems like a distant memory.
When reached by phone on Thursday, Mets owner and COO Jeff Wilpon said he didn't wish to re-characterize Manuel's status, saying instead that he would let stand the remark he made after last season, when he said, "The fans deserve better, and they expect better. And I think ownership demands better.''
The Mets do have a chance to be better with Jose Reyes, David Wright (who looks more buff this spring) and irreplaceable ace Johan Santana back at full strength. But even with a payroll that will approach $140 million, there are considerable questions, starting with a rotation beyond Santana that is talented but mostly unproven.
Manuel wears glasses but they aren't as rose-colored as a lot of folks in the Mets clubhouse. When asked if the team is as good as they're saying internally, Manuel responded, "We'll see. We've got to pitch well. If we pitch to our potential, we've got a shot. And obviously, things have to go our way. With the squad we have, we have to stay healthy.''
Manuel is under contract only for 2010, unlike his immediate boss, Mets GM Omar Minaya, who has three years left on his deal, including this one. But that may not matter, as the Mets don't view a couple million here or there (Manuel is believed to make $1.5 million and Minaya between $1 and $1.5 million per year) as a deterrent to firing someone if they wish to make a change. Years remaining on their contracts didn't save managers Art Howe, Willie Randolph and some of the Mets' fired executives.
Minaya also has a longstanding close relationship with Mets owner Fred Wilpon, which could possibly aid him. But in the end, it appears that the GM and manager are tied together. If either Minaya or Manuel goes, there's a decent chance both will go.
Understandably, Mets people are trying not to delve too deeply into the subject of their manager's status now. Wilpon says, "We're going to get off to a good start, we will be healthy and you guys will be pushing Omar to give Jerry an extension.''
1. Dave Trembley, Orioles. Club president Andy MacPhail is right, it's time for Baltimore to start winning some games. Trembley overcame the odds to keep his job last year when things went awry yet again, but now the Orioles have a vastly improved roster. They won't win the division, but they should be close to a .500 team. Trembley is a nice man but he strikes me as a manager just managing to hang on.
2. Fredi Gonzalez, Marlins. Crazy as it seems, the Marlins seriously considered firing Gonzalez right after last season, when the $36 million team won 87 games. That just doesn't add up. But owner Jeffrey Loria, who believed that his team was playoff worthy, was in contact with Bobby Valentine. By the end, the belief was that Gonzalez had to win the final weekend to save himself, and he did that. Seems crazy. Even Valentine is believed to have advised Loria to keep his guy.
3. Dusty Baker, Reds. The Reds have been an utter disappointment in Baker's two years there, and at some point they might start to wonder whether $3.7 million for him is money well spent in a small market. He's a great guy who won three Manager of the Year awards in San Francisco, but for the moment the story has turned into how tough he is on pitchers. That's not a good story for long-term security.
4. Bruce Bochy, Giants. Expectations are up in San Francisco after a very nice 2009 season, and while GM Brian Sabean deserves heat, the pressure apparently is on Bochy instead.
5. John Russell, Pirates. Expectations are obviously low in Pittsburgh, and maybe there's nothing that Russell can do to lose his job. But at some point, the record does tend to catch up with a manager.
6. Trey Hillman, Royals. He seems to have incredible support from his bosses, but the Royals have brought in more free agents than one would think, and the results just aren't there yet.
7. Joe Maddon, Rays. The toast of baseball in 2008, everyone in the media would mourn if Maddon ever went away. The reality, though, is that his bosses believe the Rays underachieved last year and that they have a very good team again this year.
8. Ron Washington, Rangers. He appeared to be all but a goner going into last year, but he and the Rangers pulled through with a nice season. The Rangers will expect progress, considering all their fine young talent. New owner Chuck Greenberg will probably give Washington a chance, but how much of one?
• Mets people had more concern than they let on regarding flinching by David Wright after he suffered a terrible beaning by the Giants' Matt Cain last August. "At the end of the year, I felt a lot more comfortable,'' Wright said. Manuel said that he noticed Wright was back on track when he got a hit off hard-throwing sidearmer Mike MacDougal.
• The best comparison for Mark Reynolds, who will be eligible for arbitration next year, may be Prince Fielder, who received $18 million in his first two arbitration years. It's pretty safe to assume that the Diamondbacks don't want to go near that amount; their case would be that Fielder has All-Star appearances and more MVP support. On the other hand, Reynolds has more all-around skills.
• Johnny Damon's no-trade clause with the Tigers doesn't mean he can't be traded, only that he can dictate where he can be traded to. So if the Yankees come calling at mid-year, he's pretty likely to accept. However, that doesn't mean they will, either. They didn't act very anxious to sign him when they had the chance.
• Damon is said to have been offered $6 million with 60 percent deferred by the White Sox. They really got into it after Damon played golf with high school teammate A.J. Pierzynski, leading some to speculate that they were in the lead.
• White Sox closer Bobby Jenks has lost 20 pounds, and may be benefiting by cleaning up his off-field game.
• Stephen Strasburg, last year's No. 1 draft choice, was "electric'' in his first session, says Nationals GM Mike Rizzo.
• The Mariners still make the most sense for Jarrod Washburn, though there's a difference of opinion over the money. The same is true with the Royals.
• The Cardinals aren't ruling out adding a piece, but Cardinals people sound like they want to assess their situation first. Felipe Lopez makes sense for them; if they have a weakness, it might be in the infield, where unproven David Freese is the the favorite to win the third base job and Brendan Ryan, just off surgery, is the shortstop.
• Maybe I'm being cynical, but I'm wondering if GM Ed Wade's two-year extension through 2012 is a clue that the Astros may be about to sell. It might be Drayton McLane's gift to Wade for being a good soldier (as opposed to a good GM) right before McLane unloads the team (and Wade). McLane has been in talks about selling the team to Harvey Schiller and Marc Isaacson.
• A Los Angeles Times' report, based on court documents, reveals an outrageous plan by the Dodgers, whereby they would keep player pay flat through 2018 -- it would be $125 million in 2018, down from $132 million last year -- while pumping up revenue, from $295 million in 2008 to $529 million in '18. Said one competing NL GM who would no doubt love to see the Dodgers not raise their payroll: "I hope that's right.''