NEW YORK -- So Luis Rojas will be the Mets’ next manager. Those who know him say he was born to become a manager at some point, for some team.
Doing so at this particular time for this particular team presents a notable challenge, though not one for which he is unprepared. Already this winter, Rojas has spent two weeks in Florida meeting with Mets staffers. As quality control coach last year, he had his hands in every aspect of the on-field operation. Rojas may not be experienced in the classic sense of the word, but he appears as qualified as anyone to point the Mets in the proper direction.
To begin, he must tackle these five challenges:
1. Straightening out Edwin Díaz
Díaz was going to be Carlos Beltrán’s personal project. As a fellow Puerto Rican, Beltrán felt he could bond with the former All-Star closer, helping him rebound from a season that saw him blow seven saves, absorb seven losses and finish with a 5.59 ERA.
The good news for Rojas is much of the infrastructure that Beltrán and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen installed to help Díaz remains in place. Díaz worked out in Puerto Rico with new pitching coach Jeremy Hefner, as well as various members of the Mets’ health and performance staffs. Rojas still must decide if he wants to give the closer’s job back to Díaz, split it between multiple relievers or devise some other arrangement. Those choices may not be easy, but they’ll be critical to the bullpen’s success.
2. Figuring out the Yoenis Céspedes situation
Assuming Céspedes is healthy enough to walk to home plate, few around baseball doubt his ability to hit. In discussing that situation this week, Van Wagenen said Céspedes is ready to go “on offense” following multiple heel surgeries and a broken ankle. While that’s good news for the Mets, those two words -- “on offense” -- loom large. Uncertainty still surrounds Céspedes’ ability to run, field and otherwise produce the way a National League outfielder must. The Mets don’t have the benefit of a DH. And now that he’s playing under a restructured contract, Céspedes has a huge financial incentive to make the Opening Day roster.
If Céspedes does make the team, Rojas will have to figure out how best to balance Céspedes’ needs with J.D. Davis’ own playing time requirements coming off a breakout year. If the mercurial Céspedes must take a back seat to Davis, Rojas could be in for some tough conversations.
3. Settling on the back end of the rotation
The Mets have a potentially awkward situation on their hands, with three starting pitchers -- Steven Matz, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha -- vying for two spots. Porcello seems a strong bet for one, given his dependability and some promises the Mets may have made when they signed him. Matz probably deserves the other based upon his track record as a solid mid-rotation starter. But what if Wacha outperforms him in Spring Training? What if Wacha expects a rotation job after signing a deal laden with games-started incentives? No matter which direction the Mets go, this could be another tricky situation for Rojas to manage, with jobs, egos and dollars at stake.
4. Getting the most out of Robinson Canó …
… both on and off the field. Although Rojas has only spent one year coaching Canó, the two formed such a bond that Canó publicly endorsed him as a managerial candidate back in September. That’s important. Few players in the Mets clubhouse can approach Canó’s stature as a 15-year veteran with a World Series ring. Canó has the respect of the room, and Rojas has the respect of Canó. As Rojas seeks to rebrand the clubhouse culture as a 38-year-old with no prior experience, he’ll need Canó’s backing.
Rojas also needs Canó on the field. Despite his injury-plagued 2019, Canó enters spring as the Mets’ starting second baseman and a middle-of-the-order bat. The Mets will be a better team if Rojas can figure out how best to deploy Canó; at this point in his career, given his injury history, it’s probably not by starting him 150 times.
5. Making a good impression on the media
Van Wagenen called Rojas “one of the better in-game decision-makers certainly that we have in the organization.” He checks that box. As previously established, Rojas also has his players’ respect. But what about the media? That’s where Mickey Callaway ran into so much trouble during his tenure, often giving awkward or contradictory answers to questions. The Mets have more reporters covering them on a daily basis than nearly any team in baseball. Little stories have a way of mushrooming into big, multi-day affairs.
Rojas has never faced anything like that in his career. As manager, he’s also about to become one of the most public faces of the franchise. He’ll get his first chance in front of the microphone during his introductory press conference this month, then will return for a State of the Mets address in the opening days of Spring Training. How he fares could offer hints at how he will handle the media throughout his tenure.