Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 24, 2021

The Conventional Wisdom Wins Again

Championships.  As in more than one.  Speaking at his introductory press conference as the new manager of the New York Mets, Buck Showalter made it plain that he understands just what franchise owner Steve Cohen expects of him.  “The job description here isn’t to be competitive or try to win more games than you lose,” Showalter said.  “It’s to be the last team standing.  And not just once.”

Since acquiring the team from the Wilpon family at the end of the 2020 season – in his second attempt at doing so – lifelong fan Cohen, who grew up on Long Island just ten miles east of the Mets’ home, has been resolute in his goal of bringing titles to Citi Field.  The wealthiest owner in MLB, he quickly opened his checkbook, signing offseason trade acquisition Francisco Lindor to a 10-year, $341 million contract extension shortly before Opening Day last spring.  New York’s first season under its new owner got off to a promising start, with the team ten games over .500 and well in front of the NL East by the middle of June. 

But that proved to be the season’s high-water mark, and despite playing in a weak division the Mets’ lead gradually dissipated.  When the squad dropped six of seven to open the month of August, it disappeared entirely.  By season’s end, the standings reflected one more disappointing campaign for Mets fans, with their heroes in third place, eight games under .500 and far removed from the playoffs.  That sad result earned the franchise space on an unwelcome page of MLB’s history books, as the first team to hold first place for more than 100 days during a season yet finish with a losing record.  It also cost second year manager Luis Rojas his job.

Before turning attention to the managerial vacancy, Mets president Sandy Alderson unleashed Cohen’s vast financial resources to remake the roster.  New York lost its share of free agents in the November rush of signings, with starting pitchers Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard and Rich Hill, as well as infielder Javier Baez, leaving Queens. 

The exits were quickly forgotten though, when in a rapid sequence just before the old agreement expired and the owners’ lockout of players began, Cohen spent more than $250 million to sign infielder Eduardo Escobar, outfielders Starling Marte and Mark Canha, and right-hander Max Scherzer.  Marte, the former Oakland Athletic who was the consensus pick as the best free agent center fielder available this year, got $78 million over four years, and Scherzer, the most highly prized starting pitcher on the open market, received a whopping $130 million to ply his trade in Queens for the next three seasons.  Alderson also brought on Billy Eppler to fill the franchise’s vacant GM position, hoping to finally stabilize a front office that had been in disarray for a year, with one general manager fired after a history of sexual harassment was revealed, and a second let go, after a prolonged leave, following an arrest for DUI.

With the baseball decision-makers in place, and with Cohen having proved his willingness to spend big on the roster, the remaining issue for the Mets, at least until the lockout ends, was who would be the team’s new manager.  That the answer was the veteran skipper Showalter was far less surprising than, say, agreeing to pay a 37-year-old pitcher more than $43 million a year until sometime after his 40th birthday.  At his four previous managerial stops, first in an adjacent borough with the Yankees from 1992 through 1995, then in Arizona for three seasons, Texas for four, and most recently Baltimore from the middle of the 2010 season through the final out of 2018, Showalter built a reputation as an astute skipper, one who is popular with his players, effective with the media, and as capable as any non-player can be of adding some games to a franchise’s win column.  Even though it was almost three decades ago, his prior experience in New York is taken as proof that he can handle the searingly bright lights of the Great Game’s biggest stage, and his three Manager of the Year Awards, one each with the Yankees, Rangers and Orioles, is considered absolute proof of his managerial excellence.  Through two rounds of interviews, the first done remotely with a long list of candidates, and the second conducted in person with three finalists that in addition to Showalter included Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro and Joe Espada, who fills the same role for the Astros, he was always the heavy favorite and the most popular choice among both fans and members of the media.

Perhaps that conventional wisdom will pan out.  Showalter can count on having plenty of talent, since Cohen has made it clear that unlike many MLB owners, such as the Yankees’ Hal Steinbrenner to pick a not so random example, he won’t let an obsession with profit outweigh his desire to win.  The Mets pre-lockout signings moved them to the top of the team salary rankings for next season, ahead of even the profligate Los Angeles Dodgers.  And while owners like Steinbrenner timidly did nothing, Cohen struck his deals without regard to what the luxury tax threshold will look like in a new CBA.

Yet the games must still be played.  With 1,551 wins, he stands 24th on the list of most managerial career victories and could easily be in the top twenty by this time next year.  But Showalter is second on that list behind only Gene Mauch if one additional factor is added.  Despite all those wins, he has never guided a team to a league pennant, much less a World Series championship.  Buck’s legion of acolytes will be quick to point out that both the Yankees and Diamondbacks won titles the year after he was fired and argue he should get some credit for those teams.  Still, Showalter might want to focus on at least playing for a title before talking about “not just once.”

Then there is the fact that while managers can only control so much, Showalter’s own actions have a lot to do with that gaping hole in his resume.  His refusal to trust closer John Wetteland with the ball in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS against Seattle was a call that would now be said to be based on analytics, because some of Wetteland’s few struggles that year came versus the Mariners.  It proved disastrous for the Yankees.  And his decision to use seven different pitchers, but not dominant closer Zack Britton, in the Orioles’ 2016 Wild Card matchup against the Blue Jays, remains Showalter’s most inexplicable failure. 

Of course, a career managing more than 3,000 games shouldn’t be defined by just two.  One should never say that Buck Showalter can’t win the big ones, and by all means one shouldn’t suggest that the Mets new manager was hired in no small part because, as is so often the case in the tightly closed loop of major sports jobs, he is a white male who has the inherent advantage of being familiar to and looking just like the white males doing the hiring.  That’s the view in Queens, at least, where hopes are ever so high.  They will remain in the stratosphere at least until sometime next season – assuming of course there is a next season – when in June, or August, or the home stretch, the Metropolitans hit a rough patch, as happens to even the best clubs at some point.  The safe and conventional decision so praised in winter will seem less inspired if the team wilts under the summer sun, leaving the beat writers surly and unhappy fans looking for someone to blame.

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