Make no mistake, the Mets made a tremendous strategic upgrade when they changed managers from Willie Randolph to Jerry Manuel in June 2008. The former struggled with the elementary questions of bullpen management and player and media communication; the latter excels at all three.
But even in a game Manuel managed supremely for nearly nine full innings, a 4-3 loss yesterday to the Florida Marlins, Manuel’s decision to pinch-hit Omir Santos for Ramon Castro with the bases loaded in the ninth inning defies all logic applied to it.
Manuel’s week-long love affair with playing Santos over Castro has all the makings of a Willie Randolph-style blunder, both in terms of strategy and player motivation.
When starting catcher Brian Schneider hit the disabled list on April 17, it was widely assumed that Castro would finally get his chance to prove he could play every day. After all, the question with Castro has never been if he could hit—his OPS is .769 since joining the Mets in 2005, with 31 home runs in 727 at-bats—but whether he could stay healthy. A performing Castro wouldn’t simply be an adequate substitute for Schneider, but a significant upgrade.
Castro, now 33, dedicated himself to training this offseason, and shed 25 pounds. He has been healthy all season, and after a slow start, has hit .304 over his last 23 at-bats, so recent performance hasn’t been a problem, either. In fact, Castro homered the night before Schneider was placed on the DL, and had two hits in his first start as the would-be starting catcher.
But Omir Santos seemed to impress Jerry Manuel quite a bit in his limited time with the Mets, hitting a double and a triple in his first major league start April 19. Then, though Castro had a hit in both his April 22 and April 24 starts, Omir Santos took firm hold of the position, getting the chance to start the last four games in a row before Wednesday afternoon.
The reasons given for this have varied, none of them geared toward common sense. It was said that the Mets wanted to see what Santos could do before Schneider returned—but they are paying Castro $4.6 million in 2008 and 2009 for the chance to see what Ramon Castro could do should Schneider get hurt.
It was said the Mets were dissatisfied with Castro’s handling of pitchers, yet in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, pitchers allowed a significantly lower OPS with Castro behind the plate than they did with New York’s starting catcher. It also makes no sense that Santos, with the club less than two weeks, would have a better handle on what pitches to call than Castro, who has been with the club since 2005.
On Wednesday, Castro finally got another opportunity to start, and made the most of it, collecting two hits and an RBI. With two out in the ninth and the bases loaded, the Mets had Castro set to hit against a struggling Matt Lindstrom. Yet Manuel chose the particular indignity of not only pinch-hitting for Castro, but doing so with Santos, who had to come all the way from the bullpen in center field to hit.
Santos popped up to end the game, but the decision was an awful one regardless of the outcome.
“I think Santos has a little shorter swing,” Manuel said in his press conference following the game. “And when you have a little shorter swing, it is easier to get to a guy throwing in the upper nineties. If it would have been a different—let’s say, a sinker-slider guy, then Ramon would have continued to hit.”
However, the decision robbed Castro, a tremendous fastball hitter, of the chance to hit. Both of Castro’s hits earlier in the game against starter Josh Johnson came on fastballs. And the 1-1 fastball Santos popped up to end the game is just the pitch Castro often deposits into the seats.
The choice also raises an alarming belief in Santos, who is a nice story, but is, in fact, a career .651 OPS hitter in the minor leagues who celebrated his 28th birthday Wednesday. Chances are the Mets haven’t found their next great backstop, but merely a career minor leaguer with a week’s worth of magic beans.
In a league where a catcher who can hit is a truly rare gift, the Mets can take advantage of a healthy, motivated Ramon Castro in a contract year, yet seem set to throw away at-bats with Omir Santos, who has yet to draw a major-league walk and has a .769 OPS in 26 at-bats.
The best comparison for Santos is to a 2008 feel-good story, Argenis Reyes. Reyes had a slick glove at second base and posted an .808 OPS in his first 33 at-bats, belying his .674 career minor league OPS. By the end of 2008, Reyes’s OPS was down to .504. Almost certainly, Santos will suffer the same fate. The difference was, the Mets didn’t have a hitter like Castro to play second base.
With Schneider still considered at least a week away from returning, it isn’t too late for New York to change course and give Castro a chance to perform. Castro was gracious after the game, saying the choice was up to the manager, but he did say that Manuel hadn’t told him he might be pinch-hit for.
“I was surprised,” Castro said. Anyone cognizant of Castro’s and Santos’s strengths was surprised as well—not to mention surprise at the departure from Manuel’s tremendous gift of communicating with his players.
“I put mostly everybody in an opportunity to perform,” Manuel said in his press conference following the game. “Everybody gets a shot. I just have to make a decision.”
Clearly, Ramon Castro deserves that shot. For a manager who is so good at making the tactically correct decision—Wednesday, for example, he exploited Josh Johnson’s long pitching delivery and had the Mets steal three bases—the decision to stick with Santos blocks a far better player largely on a hunch. For that kind of managing, the Mets could simply bring back Willie Randolph.
Howard Megdal is the author of The Baseball Talmud, a book about Jewish baseball players.