Rojas uniquely qualified for a short season

July 3rd, 2020

Luis Rojas of the Mets is a rookie manager who looks young enough to be a rookie player. He's the son of Felipe Alou and is just 38 years old, which puts him among the youngest managers in the history of New York baseball. Joe Torre was younger when he began managing the Mets in 1977, first as a player/manager. Buck Showalter was 35 on Opening Day in 1993 for the Yankees. Here is Rojas' managing experience so far: Savannah Sand Gnats, Class A ball in the Mets' system; Binghamton Rumble Ponies in Double-A; and the Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League.

Leones del Escogido played a 50-game season. Rojas, who managed the Mets for a month in Spring Training before coronavirus shut down the sport, now gets 60 games with the Mets, plus the postseason if his team makes it that far. And if the Mets are good -- and they have a chance to be good -- Rojas has a chance to be one of the very best stories of the upcoming season.

As an Alou, Rojas is a part of baseball royalty, here and in the Dominican. Rojas is still as unlikely a manager as the Mets have ever had, at any age, because of the way he replaced Carlos Beltrán, who was hired in November and then mutually agreed to part ways with ballclub in January, a few weeks before pitchers and catchers reported to Port St. Lucie, Fla., because of his involvement in the Astros' sign stealing when Beltrán was still playing.

"There have been a lot of challenges," Rojas said in a Zoom session with the media on Thursday afternoon.

It was the first time he talked about challenges over the next hour, but not the last.

Later, Rojas said, "There will be challenges on a daily basis."

There will be, for him and everybody, as baseball tries to make it to Opening Day on July 23 or 24 and then beyond -- make it through all the protocols in place because of the virus and through games in empty stadiums, with bigger rosters than ever for the shortest regular season in the history of the national pastime, and even the designated hitter coming to the National League. Rojas -- son of Felipe and brother to Moises Alou, his boss with Leones del Escogido, and nephew to Matty Alou -- now tries to navigate all of that, and do it in New York.

"Every time you sit down," Rojas said on Thursday, "you think about the shortness of the season."

Rojas said he has talked to Felipe Alou a lot, especially since Spring Training was shuttered on March 12. Alou managed 14 years in the big leagues, 10 of them with the Montreal Expos, and experienced a short season himself, in 1994, when a strike ended the season in the middle of August. That means a few weeks later on the baseball calendar from when the 2020 season is scheduled to begin. The Expos were 74-40 at the time and looked like they might make it to the World Series, maybe even against Showalter's Yankees, who were 70-43 and had the best record in the American League that year.

But Rojas, whose Mets began their Florida season with split-squad games on Feb. 22 and ended it on March 11 with a victory over the Cardinals, seems to be ready for this. And he might be uniquely qualified for a short season because of his experience in winter ball, with a team known in English as the "Chosen One Lions."

Rojas spoke on Thursday of how "similar [the 2020 season] is to the winter league … in terms of the length of the season," a season that he managed the way his father had before him.

The challenges about which Rojas kept speaking were not just the challenges of managing his team in the midst of a pandemic, but the challenges of playing in the NL East, which might be the toughest in the sport between the end of July and the end of September. One of the narratives of Spring Training was about how the Mets had to figure out how to fit six starters into five spots in their rotation. Now it is five starters, as No. 2 starter underwent Tommy John surgery in March.

But the Mets still have two-time NL Cy Young Award winner , former AL Cy Young Award winner , , and . They have , who hit 53 home runs last season and broke the rookie home run record, , base-hit machine and possibly getting back from injury for the first time in two full years. And they believe , even pitching in New York, is young enough and still has enough arm to find the form he showed in Seattle, where he had 57 saves in 2018.

Rojas and the Mets can also draw strength from the fact that they finished 46-26 last season after being 40-50, and kept grinding for a NL Wild Card spot pretty much until the end of the regular season.

"Depth is going to help us," Rojas said.

A rookie manager who looks young enough to be a rookie player. Son of Felipe Alou. Son of a former manager the way the other New York manager, Aaron Boone, is. The Mets have chosen the former manager of the Chosen One Lions. They have believed, as Rojas worked his way through their system, that he was born to this kind of work, and that was before a season that was shortened to winter-ball length. We're about to find out. Fast.