'It starts with the manager,' and Buck is raring to go

January 20th, 2023

Buck Showalter has been managing in the big leagues for more than 30 years now, from the time when it looked as if a college kid were managing the Yankees. That was back when he and his boss, Gene Michael, began the process of changing everything at the old Yankee Stadium, picking the Yankees up after they had fallen down at the end of the '80s and then into the '90s.

Now Showalter is with the Mets, coming off a great season when they fell down at the very end: first in Atlanta, where they could have clinched the NL East and gotten themselves a first-round bye, then against the Padres, who not only beat the Mets but went on from there in October to beat a Dodgers team that won 111 games last season.

Showalter was asked the other day when he plans to arrive at the Mets' Spring Training home in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

“Feb. 2,” he said. “The longer you’re at this, the earlier it gets. But I’m ready to get after it. We all are. Trust me when I tell you there’s going to be a lot of want-to in our team this season.”

He did not talk about unfinished business, after the Mets ended up winning the same 101 games that the Braves did as they tried to defend their 2021 World Series championship. Atlanta has its own unfinished business as it tries to win the East for the sixth straight year. The Phillies went further than both the Mets and Braves, all the way to the World Series. This is a division that will not be for the faint of heart this year, the top of it is as strong and formidable as any in baseball.

The Mets were as busy in this offseason, perhaps busier, than any team fancying itself a World Series contender. They picked up Justin Verlander to replace Jacob deGrom. They thought they had Carlos Correa until they didn’t; until they didn’t like the medical reports on Correa any more than the Giants had, and Correa decided to take a deal with the Twins he deemed preferable to the revised deal Steve Cohen, the Mets' owner, and GM Billy Eppler had offered him.

All Showalter says is that he wishes Correa the very best now that he is back with the Twins, except when he plays the Mets. It reminds you of the story that Bob Knight tells when he was a young coach at Army, and his star player, a forward named Mike Silliman, was lost for the season because of injury. Knight called his mentor, Clair Bee, and said, “What am I going to do without Silliman?”

And Bee replied, “Who’s Silliman?” The meaning was clear. The team Knight would be coaching no longer had Silliman, so there was no point in talking about him.

“Everybody has moved on,” Showalter said.

He was asked then if he likes his team as currently constructed, even though there is the belief in baseball that Eppler isn’t done adding pieces.

“I like my team a lot,” Showalter said.

He talked about a star pitcher from Japan, Kodai Senga -- he of the “ghost forkball” -- and José Quintana -- who finished last season with the Cardinals, making 12 starts for them and finishing with a 2.01 ERA -- being what Showalter considers a “great under-the-radar signing by Billy.” He talked about his bullpen, which has added depth and will probably add more before Showalter does arrive in Port St. Lucie. Adam Ottavino is coming back, David Robertson is coming over from the Phillies and the Mets feel as if they have added a much-needed lefty reliever in Brooks Raley, who pitched for the Rays last season.

Of course, the Mets re-signed their closer, Edwin Díaz, not long after last season ended -- after Díaz had the season of his life, looking as close as the Mets have ever had to having their very own Mariano Rivera.

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” Showalter said, “but you can never have enough relief pitching in our game.”

Finally, he was talking about a returning player that the Mets got on an eight-year deal, Brandon Nimmo, coming off the season of his life -- not only as Showalter’s center fielder, but as his leadoff man.

“From the start, which means from the time the season ended,” Showalter said, “I felt that bringing back Brandon was an absolute must.”

The Mets believe that their young catcher, Francisco Álvarez, can be a total star, perhaps as early as this season. They have added Omar Narváez, a lefty bat and good receiver, to pair with Álvarez. Even without Correa, no Mets fan has forgotten the way Eduardo Escobar came on at the end of last season, and what a valuable presence he is in their clubhouse.

The most valuable off-the-field presence continues to be their manager, who won another NL Manager of the Year Award with the Mets, which means he has now done that in both leagues and in four different decades. You need to know he is very much ready to go.

“That want-to I spoke of,” Buck Showalter said. “It starts with the manager.”