Back for '21, Rojas motivated by new regime

November 25th, 2020

NEW YORK -- Earlier this month, Mets manager Luis Rojas tuned in to the press conference in which owner Steve Cohen and incoming team president Sandy Alderson addressed the media for the first time in their new roles. As Rojas listened to Cohen and Alderson discuss their vision for building a championship team in the near future, he found himself eager to get to work.

“The excitement of thinking about what it's going to be like and the talk of how active we’re going to be this offseason with the goal of being a competitive team next year, that’s something that motivates you to prepare even more and keep growing within the game,” Rojas said by phone, in Spanish, from his native Dominican Republic.

At the time, however, it wasn’t guaranteed that Rojas would return as manager in 2021. While Rojas signed a two-year contract when he assumed the role in January shortly after the newly hired Carlos Beltrán stepped down, his job status came into question with the sale of the team and the subsequent overhaul of the front office. In that initial press conference, Alderson said he expected Rojas to return as manager under the new regime, but he left open the possibility that a new president of baseball operations might go in a different direction.

However, in a Zoom call with reporters on Monday, in which Alderson announced that the team had changed its original plans to hire a president of baseball operations and will instead focus on bringing a general manager into the fold, Alderson also confirmed that Rojas will remain the team’s skipper.

Now that he's certain he will be at the helm for the Mets in 2021, Rojas is eager to get to work with his new boss, who he describes as “authentic.”

Rojas, 39, has been in the Mets organization as a coach and manager since 2006. Alderson took over as the club’s general manager in ’10, a role he occupied until ’18. Before being promoted to the big league coaching staff for the first time in ’19 as quality control coach, Rojas managed at three different levels in the Mets’ farm system and recalls having brief but memorable Spring Training interactions with Alderson during each of those stops.

“Sandy always came to give motivational speeches to all the coaches about how we were all connected, from the big leagues to the Minors, and how we were a family,” Rojas said. “You could sense the spirit of collaboration, in which we were all part of the machinery of the organization for developing players and getting them to the big league club.”

The Mets are coming off a disappointing 2020, when they finished fourth in the National League East with a 26-34 record in an abbreviated 60-game campaign due to the coronavirus pandemic. They fell short of the playoffs despite the postseason field in each league being expanded to include eight teams (16 total).

Diminished depth in the starting rotation -- the team lost Noah Syndergaard to Tommy John surgery soon after Spring Training was suspended, and Marcus Stroman opted not to pitch in 2020 because of coronavirus concerns -- was partly to blame, as was lackluster defense.

The roster at Rojas’ disposal is expected to look very different in 2021. Under Cohen, the Mets are poised to be players for the top free agents on the market, including catcher J.T. Realmuto and reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Trevor Bauer. New York is also said to be eyeing star shortstop Francisco Lindor, who appears likely to be moved by the Indians before Opening Day.

While there could be reinforcements on the way, the 2021 season is still shrouded in uncertainty. From a strategic standpoint, one of the main questions is whether the designated hitter will be employed in the National League as it was in '20. The biggest unknown, however, is how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could impact Spring Training and the start of the regular season.

As a rookie manager last season, Rojas had to contend with unprecedented health protocols, an unconventional schedule and a coronavirus outbreak that kept his team off the field for five days in August. That experience, he said, could be valuable, depending on how the current public-health crisis evolves.

“I think this past year was a great frame of reference for us to get ready, and for me to get ready, for 2021, if there are protocols in place,” said Rojas.

Rojas will also look to continue to grow as a Major League manager in a more traditional sense, and Alderson expressed confidence on Monday that that will be the case.

“Luis, as an individual, as a person who’s able to relate to his players both in terms of their professional work as well as their personal lives -- I think he’s exceptional in that regard,” Alderson said. “On the professional side, managing a game, I think that he will be better.”

Rojas believes that he made strides in that regard in 2020.

“I think about a lot of situations in the game that we had, that we experienced, and I see different angles and different decisions that could have been made,” Rojas said. “A lot of learning took place. I hope to keep doing that, to keep talking to the staff and to keep improving as a coach and as a manager.”