When a manager is not fired, as Willie Randolph was not after a long meeting yesterday with Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon and general manager Omar Minaya, it is usually not news. Managers are not fired all the time. Only rarely, though, can a manager for a team with a $140 million payroll lose more games than he wins for a full year, wax paranoid about racist camera angles, follow that up by losing six of seven games, and then keep his job. This is why yesterday's press conference was carried live on ESPNews. What baseball fan, given the chance, wouldn't gawk at this bizarre spectacle?
It makes perfect sense that Minaya would support Randolph, going so far as to somewhat implausibly claim that "Willie's job was never in danger heading into this meeting." Once the hapless Mets' manager goes, as he inevitably will, attention will turn to the general manager who stocked the roster with aging, fragile, expensive players such as Orlando Hernandez and Luis Castillo and gave away cheap young players, such as Jeff Keppinger and Heath Bell, whom the team badly misses. Who tosses away a human shield while it's still capable of catching incoming bullets?
Bureaucratic dynamics aside, not firing Randolph is a perfectly sound reaction to the team's lousiness. While I've written a lot about all the reasons why the skipper should go, no obviously better manager is around, and anyway, the main problems are that there are lots of bad players on the team, and lots of decent players being used badly. These problems can be at least addressed, if not fixed, without getting rid of the manager.
One thing to do might be to put Johan Santana on a pitching schedule befitting his age (he's 29) and $137.5 million contract. Santana is on pace for just 31 games and has made seven starts on five or six days of rest, as against three on four days rest. Some other aces, such as Brandon Webb and Josh Beckett, have also pitched more on longer rest this season, but not as much as Santana, and they also don't play for teams that have routinely been starting random minor league veterans. Santana has traditionally pitched a more regular schedule — from 2005-2007, just 41 of his 100 starts came on long rest — and can presumably handle doing so in the National League. Every start he doesn't make is effectively a start for someone such as Claudio Vargas, and even if that only adds up to three games in a year, no team in the Mets' situation can just wave off three games.
Another thing to do would be to get rid of reserves Endy Chavez, Damion Easley, and the currently injured Marlon Anderson, who between them have 188 at bats — about as many as David Wright — and a .191 AVG/.231 OBA/.255 SLG batting line. Whatever intangible virtues they may have obviously haven't done the team any good, and aside from Chavez's defense, which could be replaced by Angel Pagan's once he comes off the disabled list, the three have contributed little on the field while soaking up an alarming amount of playing time. Thin as the farm system is, it does feature some real defensive players, such as middle infielder Anderson Hernandez, and some real hitters, such as minor league veteran Val Pascucci. Better a one-dimensional player than a no-dimensional one, and at this point, better a hungry player getting his first real crack at the majors than a veteran.
A third move might be to work toward swapping starter Mike Pelfrey with reliever Aaron Heilman. Since a good first start against Philadelphia, Pelfrey has given little reason to think he's going to develop into a decent starter — his three decent starts came against Washington and Cincinnati, two teams that can't hit — while his big fastball and durability seem as good a fit for a multiple-inning bullpen role as they did at the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, Heilman, owner of a 6.29 ERA, has devolved into near-uselessness in the pen, and it's hard to imagine exactly what of use the team could get for him in a trade. I've never thought that he seemed like a good fit for a starting role, but it's hard to see what possible harm stretching him out could do, or why anyone would think he'd be much worse than Pelfrey or Nelson Figueroa.
A fourth move could be to sign free agent left fielder Kenny Lofton as Moises Alou insurance. (The better move would be to sign Barry Bonds — is this team really in any position to fret about off-field circuses? — but that's not going to happen.) The well-traveled and ancient mercenary carries a reputation for being a me-first player, but who cares? Lofton can get on base, catch the ball, steal a base, and take the field every day, and for someone without a reputation as a winning player, he certainly does play in October a lot. (The only time he's missed the playoffs this decade was in 2005, when he played for an 88-win Phillies team.)
This may all be tinkering around the edges, in total disproportion to the gravity of the team's plight, but by not firing the manager, the Mets have made it clear that they're not going to do much else, and there's nothing and no one to trade for a cure-all anyway. Now the right play is to minimize the damage the weaker players on the team can do and get some flawed younger players into situations where they can contribute to the limits of their skills. The Mets are what they are, which is apparently not very good, or at least not as good as most people thought they were. I still suspect, though, that there's a baseball team lurking somewhere under the spectacle.