It's only April, but Manuel's seat with Mets is already getting warm
Jerry Manuel, Dave Trembley among managers who could be in trouble this year
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria offered lukewarm support for Fredi Gonzalez
Jose Reyes is not quite ready to move from leadoff to No. 3 in the lineup
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.
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