By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns
Most new managers walk into situations caused by teams that were either under-talented or underachieving.
Mickey Callaway should have been so lucky. What the Mets’ rookie manager inherited when he signed on the dotted line Monday is not a problem of motivation or ability. It’s a propensity toward injury, and if he doesn’t solve it at some point in the next two seasons, then any far-looking strategies for the third and final year of his first managerial contract won’t matter a darn.
He’ll probably be gone.
All that knowledge the former Cleveland pitching coach picked up at the right hand of Terry Francona the past five years will go for naught because he’ll never get a chance to use it. As he well knows, having been an injury-prone pitcher himself for five years with Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Texas, no pitcher dominates from the bench. And that’s where the Mets’ pitching staff spent most of 2017 thanks to a variety of sprains, breaks, tears and blockages.
Finding a fix that will enable Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Steve Matz, Zack Wheeler and Jeurys Familia to stay healthy must be his No. 1 priority. And that task begins immediately, as in, like, right now, by delving into the offseason training regimen of each man to make needed alterations that will keep them healthy from Opening Day to, hopefully, deep into October.
That alone will force Callaway to become more kinesiologist than strategist for a time. Of course, there will be consultation with whoever general manager Sandy Alderson finds to replace fired head trainer Ray Ramirez. But the command will come from Callaway, and it must be convincing because whatever Syndergaard, Harvey and Matz did last offseason surely didn’t work.
His first call should go to strength and conditioning coach Mike Barwis to talk the former University of Michigan muscle-maker off his football-style regimen. It hurt Yoenis Cespedes last year, and little good came of it with Harvey and Matz. Syndergaard worked out independently of Barwis last offseason.
The second should go to Syndergaard’s cellphone. And it should go something along the lines of, “Noah, you know all that weight you gained last year so you could throw the ball a billion miles an hour? Maybe sacrifice a few MPHs for more flexibility this time. Lose a few lbs and get back into the high 90s so you don’t snap a back muscle again.”
Flexibility and endurance, not brute strength, must become Callaway’s overriding theme for the offseason. The talent is there. But it must stay healthy for the 42-year-old Callaway to avoid starting his managerial career the same way 68-year-old Terry Collins ended his Mets tenure.
After that, Callaway can settle into the task of proving himself more than a valued pitching coach. The usual doubts will hover over him, just like they would any newbie. But regardless of the dubious history of pitching coaches as managers — especially one as young as himself — Callaway will get every opportunity to turn the Mets back to postseason contenders.
He is said to be a communicator and motivator. In joining Colorado’s Bud Black and Cincinnati’s Bryan Price as the only pitching coaches managing teams going into 2018, he needs to convince the position players that his acumen runs deeper than one’s negotiation of the strike zone. He’ll need to figure out how to manufacture runs and raise the Mets from the 18th-ranked run producer to a top-10 squad.
All that will start in spring training. His task right now involves scrutinizing his pitchers’ offseason conditioning to cure an injury bug that destroyed a staff that, on paper, went into 2017 as baseball’s most fearsome.
Without those guys, he’ll have no chance for a successful rookie year.
Please follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino