2017-12-13 11:00:06
On Baseball: Who Says the Mets Don’t Have a Plan? It’s Called Mickey Callaway

11:00, December 13 271 0

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Mets’ most important addition this off-season might be a 42-year-old right-hander with a 4-11 career record and a 6.27 earned run average. He does have a .667 batting average, but has no hits in this century and has not thrown a pitch in the majors since 2004.

He is Mickey Callaway, the team’s new manager, hired in October to replace Terry Collins after a 92-loss collapse. If the Mets want to improve this season, Callaway will have to be a big reason. The Yankees are the team that makes shiny roster additions, not the Mets.

The Yankees opened the winter meetings Monday by introducing Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League Most Valuable Player, to whom they owe $265 million for the next 10 years after a trade with the Miami Marlins. The Mets opened by expressing caution about the high price of middle relievers.

“I would spend a little less time thinking about our payroll,” General Manager Sandy Alderson said on Tuesday. “We’re trying to put the best team on the field we possibly can.”

Yet they are doing it with a payroll Alderson has said could be lower than last year’s opening-day figure of roughly $155 million. The Wilpons never operate like the Steinbrenners, of course, but the difference seems especially stark now.

Not that it unsettles Callaway. He spent the last five seasons as the pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians, who have won big with modest payrolls.

“I was involved in a smaller market,” Callaway said on Tuesday. “You don’t have to spend money to win. I think that’s pretty evident nowadays. It’s not about paying $30 million for a slugger. It’s about doing everything you possibly can and using every resource you possibly can to make your group of players the best they can be. And if you do that, you’re going to have the edge over the other team, in my opinion.

“Now, it’s great to have unbelievable players that have great talent. But you can outwork ’em, and that’s what we’re gonna try and do.”

That is a noble vision, though it may not comfort fans who surely expected a longer run as the headline act in town. The Mets won the National League pennant in 2015, and then claimed the top wild-card spot in 2016. As a relentless injury barrage knocked them back last year, the Yankees nearly ascended to the World Series.

So the traditional roles are back in place, on the field and off. Callaway has nothing to do with the Mets’ history; he never even faced them in his five-year career with Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Texas. He brings something important to his new job.

“I think, first and foremost, maybe we can bring a clean slate to the Mets,” Callaway said. “We can sit everybody down and say, ‘Hey, whatever happened in the past has happened.’ One of the things I’m most passionate about is leadership and creating a new culture of things, and I’m hoping that there’s a cultural shift in everything we do.”

Callaway quickly added that he was speaking about constant improvement, not criticizing the culture he inherits. But that culture has been marked lately by persistent confusion about injuries and a sense of entitlement around starters Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard. By often using words like culture and accountability, Callaway understands what must change.

“I remember I told Carlos Carrasco when I first started working with him, ‘I don’t care if you like me, but you’re going to pitch better, and in the end you’ll respect me someday, or love me,’” Callaway said, referring to a Cleveland starter who flourished under his guidance.

“And when I got this job, he texted me and said: ‘You know what? I love you.’ And I think that’s how you have to approach it. I was as hard on him as anybody. But we’re going to hold guys accountable for their routines, to make sure they’re doing the things that are very important to keep them healthy.”

With the Indians, Callaway worked with one of baseball’s most progressive front offices. He encouraged some pitchers to work with weighted-ball programs and ran a staff that threw by far the most curveballs last season — and allowed the fewest home runs. He loathes the idea of playing catch just to get the arm loose.

“We put Motus sleeves on all the pitchers in Cleveland and monitored the way they played catch,” Callaway said, referring to a compression sleeve with a sensor that tracks biomechanical data. “If you pitch like you do off the slope, to your catch partner every day, even if it’s 40 feet away or long-tossing, going through your mechanics and using your legs, it’s less taxing on your elbow and your shoulder. Therefore you can do it more, and you can recover better. Corey Kluber did it the best, and he’s thrown more innings than anyone, I think, in Major League Baseball in the last four years.”

Kluber was actually second, just behind Washington’s Max Scherzer, but that list is notably barren of Mets. Among the top 30 pitchers in innings compiled since 2014, just one pitched for the Mets in that time — Bartolo Colon. Only Jacob deGrom managed even 120 innings for the Mets last season.

Callaway hinted Tuesday that he might not use a dedicated closer — “We have to make sure we get to a save situation, and if we can’t get there, it doesn’t do any good to have this guy be named the closer,” he said — and was vague about his rotation plans. But Callaway and the new pitching coach, Dave Eiland, have told Alderson they want to work with Harvey, and Alderson seems inclined to let them.

Trading Harvey now, after two seasons sabotaged by injuries, makes little sense. Why not see if Callaway and Eiland can fix him, or at least find out what remains?

“When you’re trying to help a pitcher, it’s probably never productive to try and get back to a place,” Callaway said. “I think it’s, ‘Let’s try to improve upon what happened here before.’ Now, you may eventually get back to that place. Maybe you get better than you were to begin with. I think it’s just trying to make sure you’re not focused on going from A to Z. You focus on going from A to B to C, with little improvements that turn this calendar year into something very productive.”

If last year was A and a championship is Z, the Mets’ off-season is stuck around F. They are bound to add some pieces here or there, but still have made no moves to improve their pitching, or a lineup that had four starters traded last summer.

One of them, right fielder Jay Bruce, went to Callaway’s Indians and helped them reach 102 victories. Then they lost in the playoffs to the Yankees. Callaway got a new job, but remains in their shadow.