As Manuel plays for the (meaningless) present, young Mets speak of the future
It has been clear for some time that the New York Mets will not be part of the playoffs this season. It’s also clear that, unlike many other years in which the franchise has meandered purposelessly toward October, this group actually has a number of players at key positions who could contribute meaningfully in the future.
Despite this, their manager Jerry Manuel, who is not expected to last more than 48 hours after the last out of the 2010 season is recorded, has continue to give playing time to older players with little to no shot of starting next year. The result has been to take games with no meaning for the present and strip them of the future benefit teams should get once they are out of the race.
At second base, Ruben Tejada has been a revelation in the field while looking overmatched at times at the plate. No one doubts his ability to field his position—he’s quite adept both at second base and shortstop, where co-franchise player Jose Reyes has the position locked down.
What Manuel has done, instead of letting Tejada get at-bats against major league pitching, is continually play Luis Hernandez, no one’s idea of a major league hitter, and, at 26, no prospect. From August 29 through September 13, Hernandez started ten of fifteen games, with Tejada starting eight games—seven of them at shortstop, a position he won’t be expected to fill next year.
Manuel justified his actions by saying that the Mets needed Hernandez’s offense, which is hard to understand if their goal was, as one usually assumes, to score runs. It took a season-ending injury to Hernandez on Saturday to elevate Tejada into the regular lineup.
“It’s a good opportunity to play every day,” Tejada said last week in a conversation by his locker prior to the Mets’ 6-2 win over the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates. At the time, Manuel had said Tejada would get to play against only left-handers. By chance, the Pirates started two lefties in a row.
“You get to make adjustments," Tejada said. "It’s a hard game, but I know I can do it.”
Of course, not only did Tejada understand he wasn’t likely to play every day, he said Manuel hadn’t spoken to him about how much playing time to expect.
“He’s the manager, it’s his decision,” Tejada said. “I’m ready to play baseball.”
Bobby Parnell, who has had the breakout season among the Mets' relievers, finds himself in a similar situtation. The right-handed flamethrower just turned 26, but his ability to throw faster than 100 MPH is nothing new. His command, which has undergone a drastic improvement, is another story. Parnell has cut his walk rate from 4.7 per nine in 2009 to 2.1 in 2010, while his strikeout rate has jumped from 7.5 per nine in 2009 to 8.5 in 2010.
The in-the-moment Mets didn’t even use him in a major-league game until June 22. Parnell is not even eligible for arbitration this offseason, meaning he will be under the team’s control for years to come. His fastball-slider combo is perfectly suited for the back end of games. And with starting closer Francisco Rodriguez’s situation still to be dictated by both the Mets and the criminal justice system, the closer duties for 2011 may well be available.
And yet Hisanori Takahashi has been closing games for the Mets. Takahashi, a lefty, has been good in the role, but he's 35, will become a free agent this winter, and has stated a preference to start in 2011. Even if the Mets want to bring him back, and he is amenable, knowing whether Parnell is up to the job of getting outs to finish off games would allow the team to know exactly how much money to throw at Takahashi.
“I’ve only been relieving for two years,” Parnell said at his locker before the Pirates game. “I’ve got a lot to learn. Takahashi’s doing a great job, but I’d definitely like some opportunities, and that’s where I see myself, is closing.”
Parnell, who speaks with a closer’s swagger and a strong North Carolina accent, said that Manuel is aware of his desire to get a chance to finish a game.
“Any opportunity you get, it’s valuable,” Parnell said. “There’s added pressure, they’re pressing as hard as they can. It’s more of a mental game in the ninth inning than anything else. It just comes down to the experience of doing it.”
One young Met who did get the opportunity to play every day and establish himself was Angel Pagan. It only happened because of injuries in 2009, and despite a strong season, Manuel actually started Gary Matthews Jr. in center field on Opening Day 2010, and in eight of the first fifteen games. But Matthews' utter ineptitude provided Pagan with another chance, and it appears he’s played well enough to finally figure in the Mets' plans.
According to Pagan, it never would have happened if he'd played part-time.
“I was able to feel comfortable, confident, and really slow the game down,” Pagan said in the locker room. “I think, when a young guy has the opportunity to play every day, that confidence will come. Every day, I learned something new. Every day, I learned how to control my emotions. That’s really key to being a successful player in this game.”
Unfortunately, in the cases of Tejada, Parnell and others on the roster like Nick Evans, those opportunities have been in exceedingly short supply on the 2010 Mets—even with the postseason out of reach.