The best word to describe Buck Showalter’s introductory news conference as manager of the New York Mets? Weird.
He was hired as part of management’s attempt to maximize the potential of a roster full of talent, but because of the owners’ lockout of the players — and a policy forbidding club employees to speak publicly about union members — Showalter couldn’t freely utter the name of Pete Alonso, or Francisco Lindor, or Max Scherzer, or any other player.
He veered around references to individual members of the roster the way you might drive around frost-heave potholes. But Showalter is reflexively prepared, and so it’s a near-certainty that as soon as he shut down his Zoom link and went off the record — and probably for hours beforehand, too — he has been on the phone with club staffers talking about players — the personalities and the strengths of individual Mets, and possible trade or free-agent targets.
The lockout’s policies might have made his introduction stranger than usual, but it also gives Showalter time to start to work through a long to-do list as he moves into a position previously held by, among others, Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra and Davey Johnson.
Here are the most pressing issues Showalter faces:
1. What kind of production volume can the Mets reasonably expect from Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer?
Scherzer is the highest-compensated player in baseball history by a wide margin, a distinction that speaks to his greatness.
But Scherzer is also 37 years old and because Father Time remains undefeated, he is destined for a decline that may well occur during his three-year contract with the Mets. Scherzer started 30 games during the 2021 regular season, compiling 179⅓ innings, but there have been some cracks in his physical state. Those include the fact that after closing out the Giants in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, he pitched just 4⅓ innings for the Dodgers in the NLCS. Will the Mets look to protect Scherzer next season, perhaps regulating his innings early to ensure that he might be available later? Or will they just let him go, monitoring his condition through daily conversations?
Those are topics that need to be put on the table as soon as the labor stoppage is over.
DeGrom is the greatest pitcher on the planet — theoretically. He broke down midway through last season, with the pitcher and the team veering apart in the messaging about the source of his problems. Team president Sandy Alderson said it was a partial ligament tear, and deGrom rejected that assessment. Whatever the issue, deGrom has thrown a total of 160 innings over the past two seasons — including COVID-shortened 2020 — and even if he is healthy and ready to go, the Mets will have to carefully shape his workload. Does that mean a 120-inning limit in 2022? Or 140? More? Before the season starts, deGrom and Showalter — and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner and the front office — will have to settle on the parameters.
2. Build a bullpen.
Showalter’s greatest attribute as a manager could be his ability to properly deploy and rest his relievers through the long season, so it figures he’ll have input when the Mets dive back into the free-agent market after the new collective bargaining agreement is forged.
Edwin Diaz will begin the season as the Mets’ closer, with right-handers Seth Lugo, Trevor May and Miguel Castro also under contract. Given the concerns about the innings generated at the top of the rotation, there will be big pressure on the Mets to load up on the bullpen.
But here’s something promising for the Mets: Owner Steve Cohen has made it abundantly clear he wants to win, whatever the cost, and when teams are given the green light to sign players, the Mets will be in position to feast in a saturated landscape of free-agent relievers. So long as Cohen’s wallet is open in what will likely be a depressed market, the Mets can stack their bullpen.
There is a need for left-handers, especially considering how right-handed the pitching staff is at the moment. And there is a need for depth.
3. Pick a coaching staff.
During his last job in Baltimore, Showalter relied on his coaching staff, particularly the excellence and connectivity of folks like Wayne Kirby and Bobby Dickerson. As he sorts through options for the Mets in the days ahead, he’ll likely build a staff steeped in experience, as the world champion Atlanta Braves did with former managers Walt Weiss and Ron Washington. Something Showalter will want and need is a collection of truth-tellers. The perception of some in the Mets’ organization last year was that certain players veered off into their own orbit. Showalter’s lieutenants will need to help pull them together.
4. What do you do with Robinson Cano?
The eight-time All-Star enters the final year of the nine-season contract he signed with the Seattle Mariners, and, largely because of two extensive suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs — Cano is one strike away from being banned from baseball — the 39-year-old has played a total of 236 big league games over the last four years. But his acumen and talent is such that in his age 37 season of 2020, he batted .316 in 49 games.
If the universal DH is part of the next CBA agreement, as expected, then Showalter might have more flexibility in playing Cano. But the Mets also must also decide what to do with the left-handed hitting Dominic Smith. Would they rather use the DH to rest regulars dealing with nagging injuries? Do they want Smith as a full-time DH? Would they rather move Cano around, using him some at second base, maybe a little at third base and some at DH? Would it be better to eat the majority of his salary to get him off the roster for a player who could bring more defensive flexibility?
5. Add a left-handed starting pitcher.
Scherzer is right-handed, and so is deGrom and Taijuan Walker, and almost all of the other pitchers on the 40-man roster. Lefty David Peterson made 15 starts for the Mets in 2021, working to a 5.54 ERA. The Mets will likely pursue at least one lefty starting pitcher to help balance out their rotation.
6. What do you do with Jeff McNeil?
The answer may largely depend on how the staff evaluates his ugly 2021 performance — McNeil hit .251/.319/.360, with an adjusted OPS+ of 88 that was well below league average. For a 29-year-old player whose perceived value comes in what he brings offensively, it was a concerning performance.
Does the new Mets’ regime look at last year as the outlier, because McNeil has been a really good hitter throughout his professional career? Does it commit to playing him at second base? Or would it rather use him in a super-utility role? Or choose to look for alternatives?
Showalter is likely to spend his days trying to find answers to these questions, and many more.