Monday, May 19, 2008

Missing the Boat

The sharks are in the water and everyone is looking for their pound of flesh.

As the Mets continue to flounder in 2008 (sorry, but two straight wins against the last-place team in the American League East doesn't mean they're suddenly ready to begin dominating the rest of the league), the mainstream media has decided that Willie Randolph's head is on the chopping block. The predictable avalanche of columns and reports have followed, nearly all of them focusing on the perception of Willie's lack of control over the Mets' clubhouse and the placid demeanor he and his team continue to show.

Willie fired back last night, taking the media to task for their characterization of him and suggesting that there may even be a racial component to the criticism he's facing. Racism in baseball - and in American society - still exists, of course. But that's not the problem here. Willie doesn't yell and scream and kick dirt and throw stuff on the field when his team isn't showing enough "spark," whatever the hell that means. But that's not the problem either.

The problem is plain and simple - Willie Randolph is a poor tactical manager, who is not rising above the poorly constructed roster being handed to him by his general manager.

There's a reason why Willie Randolph was passed over by more than 10 teams with managerial openings in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It had a little bit to do with the color of his skin (because it would be naive to say that race played no factor at all), but it had a lot to do with the fact that he had no previous managerial experience. Randolph simply refused to manage in the minor leagues to prove himself and instead remained a coach on Joe Torre's staff for several years that he could've been honing the craft at lower levels of organized baseball.

Torre wasn't some type of managerial savant when he ran the ship for the Mets, the Braves or the Cardinals. He only became St. Joe of the Diamonds when he took over a team with the highest payroll in baseball and the greatest, most automatic reliever in baseball history. It didn't hurt that he managed in the American League, where you write nine names on the lineup card and see what happens, or that the enormous payroll more often than not allowed him to write nine names better than anyone else's lineup.

The notion that an apprenticeship under Joe Torre was enough to build one's self into a great manager - a notion that Randolph seemingly buys into - is simply ridiculous. There are very few people in baseball good enough to run a baseball team without spending a few seasons in the minor leagues getting his feet wet. To say that Willie Randolph isn't one of them is not an insult to Willie Randolph; it is simply recognition that Randolph is like nearly every other baseball man on the planet who needed some practice before he became perfect.

Now, we are nearly 3 1/2 years into the Willie Randolph Era and two things are becoming very clear. The first is that Randolph is a conservative, by the book manager whose unimaginative nature does not distinguish him from the rest of the pack. The second is that Randolph still struggles to grasp elementary game tactics, as well as tactics regarding lineup construction and bullpen usage. The result is a skipper who is an active detriment to his team's overall success.

In Willie's World, starters rarely go more than 100 pitches, regardless of circumstance, and multiple relievers pitch every day, rarely more than an inning at a time. The result is an overtaxed bullpen that has observers rightly questioning if they will be able to sustain such an enormous workload for an entire season. In Willie's World, the second place hitter in the lineup is a slap hitter who bunts and moves the runners over, not someone who can actually hit. The result is the continued misuse of Luis Castillo, whose diminished power numbers make him unusable anywhere other than the #8 spot in the lineup.

Willie still doesn't know when to double-switch and still overuses relievers regardless of performance. Who leads the Mets in relief innings pitched so far in 2008? Aaron Heilman and Jorge Sosa - the two most ineffective relievers in the bullpen this season. Marlon Anderson has been used as a pinch hitter in 29 of the Mets' 41 games this season - he is 5 for 25 with just two extra-base hits. Willie complains about "length" from his starting pitchers, but no one has thrown more than 117 pitches in a game this season, despite a rotation with four starters under the age of 30.

The blame can't all be laid at Willie's feet. He didn't decide to entrust the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation to walking injury risks Pedro Martinez and El Duque Hernandez. He didn't give a lefty specialist a three-year guaranteed contract. He didn't trade for Carlos Delgado's decline years, which just happened to also be his most expensive years. He didn't give a four-year contract to a Punch and Judy hitter with bad knees like Castillo. He didn't decide to build a bench mostly featuring aging second basemen, one of whom has morphed into the re-incarnation of Manny Mota.

This is a $137 million team with no depth and that's Omar Minaya's fault, no matter how you slice it. The farm system - no great shakes to begin with after several years of slot drafting and bad decisions - was laid bare to get Santana, so help most assuredly is not on the way.

So forget about Randolph's demeanor on the bench. Forget about the locker room of quiet players who aren't screaming or fighting or doing whatever the WFAN yahoos think they need to do to "show some guts." That's not the problem here. Willie Randolph is costing the Mets wins not for his behavior in the clubhouse, but for his decisions in the dugout. Everything else just complicates what should be an elementary issue.


John Peterson said...

Very nice.

tim said...

His demeanor fosters likewise demeanor rom his players. I will say this though, he used Wagner in the 8th inning Saturday and thought I would never see that from Willie. Funniest of all is the notion that it was Wagner who balked at coming in before the ninth in the past, Wagner was quoted after the game as saying the opposite. Not that it should become a regular thing for the sake of his arm, but its nice to know he can go out there when you need him.