Mets manager Jerry Manuel's seat has begun to heat up from lukewarm to warm. It isn't quite hot yet. But if things grow worse over the next few weeks with the slow-starting team, it will be.
Mets officials insist that nothing is going to happen imminently with Manuel. And general manager Omar Minaya said by phone, "I don't want to be judgmental. We have to let these guys play.''
Mets people say Manuel deserves a better chance to show what he can do. Last year wasn't a fair test considering all the devastating injuries to their core players, and neither is a week and a half into this year, not with catalyst Jose Reyes missing five games and star Carlos Beltran out altogether. Mets people said it's "too early'' for harsh judgments.
Yet, everyone around the Mets' say they understood that a solid start was needed, and that their 3-6 beginning doesn't qualify. It also isn't a great sign when several people familiar with their thinking seem to believe that they know the identity of Manuel's successor, should a change be made. They all believe that would be former Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin, who was hired by the Mets this winter as a scout, but his main role, according to some people around the team, is manager-in-waiting. There's no evidence that Melvin, who couldn't be reached on Friday morning, has been told -- or is aware -- of his potential role beyond his current scouting job.
"Jerry's working hard, and trying to get the most out of our players. And it's our job to get him the players,'' Minaya said.
Manuel wasn't nearly alone as a manager with an uncertain job situation heading into this season. The Orioles' Dave Trembley was given a reprieve last year and is off to an even worse start at 1-9. The Brewers' Ken Macha, the Reds' Dusty Baker, the Royals' Trey Hillman, the Rangers' Ron Washington and the Pirates' John Russell and even the Marlins' Fredi Gonzalez all are among the mangers under varying degrees of pressure.
But right now, Manuel's heat seems as intense as anyone's (though Trembley's seven-game losing streak has to put him right near the top as well). Manuel's job security is becoming a hot topic around New York, especially on the airwaves.
Judging by what's being said, the most popular choice for successor would be Bobby Valentine, who did a superb job as Mets manager in his first go-round, from 1996 through 2002. But Mets ownership seems reluctant to go for Valentine II, according to people who talk to them. Melvin did a respectable job in Arizona, where he got the team to the NLCS in 2007 and was known as a solid guy who was very receptive to front office suggestions. In other words, he'll be better than Valentine at doing exactly what the bosses say without challenging them too much.
In any case, the rumblings on the radio and other places are ongoing.
"You're going to hear rumblings, but all that is just noise,'' Minaya said. "There's nothing to it.''
The noise has been picking up even inside the organization. Folks familiar with the thinking of higher-ups say they believe that the team better start winning more games within the next few weeks. While Manuel is unlikely to become the 20th manager fired within a team's first 20 games, it is not a guarantee that he will still be around by the second half of the season. One person familiar with the thinking of Mets' upper management said, "They don't appear to be in a patient mood.'' That person was referring to ownership, and not Minaya, who is also under some pressure.
Team owner and COO Jeff Wilpon, who hasn't been heard from much lately but has made clear his disappointment in last year's 92-loss showing, said through a spokesman that he is not available to discuss the situation. Manuel's contract expires at year's end, with the team holding an option for 2011, believed to be for at least $1.5 million.
Minaya, who was portrayed in discussions about the status of their top baseball people last year as being part of a package with Manuel, also has been seen as being under the gun. But it isn't unreasonable to think that he may have more latitude than Manuel, in part because of a longstanding relationship with Fred Wilpon and also a three-year deal that begins this year and is believed to pay close to $4 million in total.
Folks who have worked with Manuel say he is "a good baseball man,'' and an "outside-the-box thinker'' who gels well with Minaya. However, some within the team say the jury's still out as to whether Manuel is great strategically.
The decent feeling heading out of spring training is fading with the team's slow start and a sense that things have the potential to get worse in the near term. Mets people know that they are going to have to face both Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis over the weekend, but if the team can carry over the good play from Thursday's winning performance against Colorado into St Louis and avoid a fourth straight series defeat to start the year, that might quell the negative talk.
"It was good to get the win. It just changes the momentum,'' Minaya said after the Mets had shut out the Rockies behind Mike Pelfrey's strong start. "St. Louis is always tough. If we can win two out of three, that will be outstanding. If we win one, I'll take it. We've got Jose [Reyes] back, and once we get [Daniel] Murphy and [Carlos] Beltran back, we can compete with everyone else.''
It's reasonable to think that Manuel should have the chance to manage with Reyes and Beltran, who isn't expected to return until next month. The Mets also have two very good positional prospects, first baseman Ike Davis and outfielder Fernando Martinez, in the minors. In Davis' case, the team is considering his overall development and his past struggles against left-handers and is guarding against rushing him despite a big start in the minors (1.192 OPS at Triple-A Buffalo).
Everyone in the front office admires Manuel as a person, which is easy to do. He seems to have an amazingly thick skin, a prerequisite to manage in New York. He is also very candid. After a demoralizing recent defeat to ex-Met Livan Hernandez and the Nationals, Manuel admitted that the team seemed "unprepared,'' and conceded that reflected on him. Club officials believe that the team is playing hard for Manuel. That wasn't really an issue last season, either. But there were questions last year about whether the team was always playing smart.
Manuel, for his part, has not lost his calm, or even his humor, even once. His serenity at a time like this says something remarkable about the man. He is a good and confident manager, his bosses agree. But last year's postmortem, when Mets ownership expressed their disappointment and sought results, is still fresh and memorable.
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria is effusive when it comes to his players. "I love my players,'' he said in an interview earlier this season with SI and one other entity.
But Loria has seemed less effusive when it comes to his very fine manager Fredi Gonzalez. "Fredi's the manager. Period. He's been the manager for four years,'' Loria said, restating facts rather than offering an opinion on the skipper who led a team with a $36 million payroll to 87 victories last year and is off to a 6-4 start this season.
Loria told Marlins writers late in spring that he wanted to see more "pep'' from his team, a comment that seemed to reflect on the manager. And Loria didn't back away from that remark in his interview with SI, either. "I thought we were a little sluggish,'' he said in explanation of his late-spring remark.
Gonzalez, a chronically hard worker and perpetually upbeat guy who was the choice of the Marlins' top baseball people Larry Beinfest and Michael Hill, seems not to let the lukewarm assessments by his owner affect him or his work too much. He also probably knows that if he's fired before his contract expires following the 2011 season, the Braves would might welcome him as legendary manager Bobby Cox's logical replacement. Gonzalez was a longtime coach for Cox before going to Florida.
There have been uncomfortable moments though, like when word leaked out early in the winter that Loria was in contact with Valentine during the season. Loria suggested there was nothing to that. "Bobby already answered that ... I've known Bobby for 25 years,'' Loria said in response to a question about that situation. Valentine has indeed denied that his phone conversations with Loria included any suggestion he'd take over for Gonzalez.
Gonzalez has done an exceptional job with a young team filled with inexperienced and in some cases immature players in his tenure in Florida. And outwardly at least, he doesn't appear to be bothered by less than enthusiastic reviews from the Marlins' owner.
Loria is known to have been dissatisfied with the Marlins' 2009 season, though others around the Marlins seem perfectly pleased with the job Gonzalez did to keep them in contention into the final week. Gonzalez's efforts even earned him some Manager of the Year support (including a third-place vote from me). But Loria doesn't appear easy to please. He fired Joe Girardi after Girardi won Manager of the Year honors, though that was more about a personality conflict.
Loria didn't seem too impressed by the Marlins' first win of the year, a 7-6, 10-inning affair that Loria called "like four hours in the dentist's chair,'' after the game, the second of the year. The Marlins are now 6-4. But the pressure is definitely on Gonzalez.
The Marlins do an exceptional job putting together a team on a shoestring budget, thanks to superior scouting and smarts, and Loria said he loves what the Marlins accomplished this winter (even though they were the one team that made no new acquisitions), and loves the fact "we kept all our guys.''
When he said that, he meant the players.
Jose Reyes told Mets writers he wasn't feeling comfortable enough yet to bat third, which is holding up Manuel's grand plan to move him from leadoff in Carlos Beltran's absence. Manuel doesn't appear anxious to put the star in an uncomfortable spot, and Minaya is in agreement to wait for Reyes' OK.
"He's got to feel it,'' Minaya said. "He's not fully there yet.''
Reyes is known as a great team man, and one former Met expressed some disappointment Reyes isn't accepting the assignment immediately.
"The Jose I remember was not afraid of a challenge,'' the ex-Met said. "For him to say he's not ready, that's not his makeup. The bigger the moment, the bigger the man.''
Reyes has been known as a great kid and hard worker who was the first to show up for extra work. Assuming nothing's seriously wrong, the great hope is that he returns to his old form. In the meantime, he should report to the No. 3 spot in the order, which would allow Manuel to bat the talented Angel Pagan leadoff until Beltran returns.
"I don't know why he isn't anywhere near the guy he was in 2006 or 2007,'' the former Met said. "He's the one person they can't replace. It's not Wright or anyone else. It's Reyes. As he goes, they go.''
Orlando Hudson's suggestion that racism could be behind some black players not getting jobs this year doesn't take into account that Jermaine Dye turned down a $3 million offer from the Cubs and Gary Sheffield "burned bridges in every town he played in,'' according to a former teammate. (That's not completely true, as Cox is at least one person who didn't despise him in Atlanta.) But Hudson's going to need better examples than that to prove his case.
Dye and Sheffield weren't close to the only players who found this market trying. Jarrod Washburn, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz have yet to sign, Nomar Garciaparra and Frank Thomas wound up retiring and a vast majority of players had to settle for one-year deals, especially older players.
Hudson is also likely thinking of his own experience, which has been to sign two straight one-year deals. But Hudson also turned down an offer from the Diamondbacks of $24 million over three years after the 2008 season before he first hit the free-agent market, and he has likely been hurt by a re-evaluation of the value of good but not great second basemen.
The reality is that several teams were anxious to sign Hudson, including the Mets, because is known to be a great guy and clubhouse influence. The Mets badly wanted to be rid of Luis Castillo so they could add Hudson, but the value of second baseman (and Castillo, frankly) has dropped to the point where no one wanted Castillo for anything more than pennies on his $6 million salary. That's not about race but finances.
• Torii Hunter said he intends to play only a couple more years and won't try to hang on as a DH. He said his two young boys want him home. Besides, he said, "Defense is what got me to the big leagues.''
• According to one scout, youngster Brandon Wood (.batting .100) is "really hurting the Angels.'' The scout said Wood's problem has been trying to pull outside pitches.
• Andruw Jones looks terrific for the White Sox, according to one scout, who said he'd even consider putting him in center field and moving Alex Rios to right field. That scout said he'd make Juan Pierre the DH instead. "His routes to the ball are terrible, and his arm is laughable,'' the scout said.
• Robinson Cano hitting two home runs on Jackie Robinson Day was a beautiful thing.
• Andre Ethier, who joined Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx as one of the very few players ever to have four walkoff home runs in a season, provided the walkoff single in L.A.'s 6-5 win over Arizona Thursday night. Ethier now has 10 walkoff hits.
• Jorge Cantu's record-setting start with an RBI in each of his first 10 games is amazing. Just bringing him to Florida in the first place represents another great job by Marlins people, who have a knack for finding bargains. Cantu was released by Tampa years back.
• Congratulations to Houston's Brad Mills, who's no longer a winless manager.