NEW YORK -- In hiring Carlos Beltrán as their new manager, the Mets are banking on the hope that the former All-Star’s ability to relate to and connect with his players will compensate for his lack of coaching experience. In that regard, perhaps no player currently on New York’s roster stands to benefit more from Beltrán's presence than closer Edwin Díaz.
The two Puerto Rican natives faced each other three times when both played in the American League West from 2016-17, Díaz with the Mariners and Beltrán with the Rangers and Astros. (Beltrán went 2-for-3 with a strikeout, a single and a double in those at-bats.) But it was during the 2017 World Baseball Classic, as teammates on Team Puerto Rico, that the pair had a chance to bond. (Another Mets reliever, Seth Lugo, was also on that team, which finished second in the tournament.)
“The motivation he gave us, I think, is one of the reasons why we got so far as a team [in the WBC],” Díaz said this week, in Spanish, by phone from Puerto Rico. “From the first day, he was always there, always supporting us, giving us advice that we needed because we were a young group. He and Yadier Molina were the only veterans there.”
Díaz, 25, joined others who have touted Beltrán's leadership abilities since he emerged as a managerial candidate. Beltrán, who patrolled the outfield for the Mets from 2005-11 as part of a 20-year playing career that could land him in the Hall of Fame, has not coached or managed in professional baseball since retiring after the '17 season. The 42-year-old did spend a year as a special advisor to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, however.
Díaz downplays Beltrán's lack of experience, citing the new skipper's bilingualism as a strength.
“I think he’s going to be a tremendous manager because he speaks both languages and everyone respects him,” Díaz said.
Díaz says he wants to pick Beltran’s brain about succeeding in New York, a city the incoming manager knows well, having suited up for both the Mets and the Yankees as a player.
“I want to have that conversation, to ask him how he handled New York in the time he was there [as a player] and now as a manager,” said Díaz. “He can give me some advice on how to handle the city better.”
Beltrán takes over a Mets team that aims to compete for the National League East title next year after finishing with an 86-76 record in 2019. A rebound from Díaz will be critical to New York’s aspirations. The right-hander was arguably the best closer in baseball when the Mets acquired him along with veteran second baseman Robinson Canó in a trade with Seattle last December. But a year after posting a 1.96 ERA and leading the American League with 57 saves, Díaz had a nightmarish first season in Queens.
In 66 games in 2019, Díaz had a 5.59 ERA, converted just 26 saves in 33 opportunities and allowed 15 home runs. He nonetheless struck out 99 of the 254 batters he faced, finishing with an elite 39 percent strikeout rate.
In a conference call at the beginning of October to discuss the firing of Mickey Callaway, Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen volunteered that Díaz and starter Noah Syndergaard will remain with the team for the 2020 season. According to Díaz, Van Wagenen was reiterating the message he delivered to the closer during the season.
“When the Trade Deadline in July passed, he told me I was a fundamental part of this team,” Díaz said.
As a result of his struggles, Díaz wound up sharing closer duties with Lugo. But the flamethrower is preparing this winter with the goal of proving to the Mets -- and to Beltrán -- that he is capable of handling the ninth inning. His main focus, he says, is regaining command of the slider that made him so lethal in Seattle.
To that end, Díaz has started his offseason routine earlier than usual. After the 2018 season, he didn’t start working out until mid-November. But this year, he said he’s been back in the gym since Oct. 16 and has already started getting his arm loose.
“I’d rather start earlier and prepare myself physically and mentally, so that by the first day of Spring Training I’m ready to battle hard and win the closer job again,” Díaz said.