Is Callaway the Mets manager, or the GM's shield?

Grim faces and awkward body language as <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/teams/ny-mets/" data-ylk="slk:Mets">Mets</a> COO Jeff Wilpon and manager Mickey Callaway listen to GM Brodie Van Wagenen on Monday. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Grim faces and awkward body language as Mets COO Jeff Wilpon and manager Mickey Callaway listen to GM Brodie Van Wagenen on Monday. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK -- Coming off a disastrous 1-5 road trip capped by a three-game sweep at the hands of the Miami Marlins, the worst team in baseball, the Mets could very well have chosen to fire Mickey Callaway.

Instead, they chose to humiliate him.

By calling a press conference to announce he was not firing his manager, player agent-turned-GM Brodie Van Wagenen did nothing to clear the air of the toxic cloud engulfing Callaway and his team.

On the contrary, he merely made the smoke murkier and more noxious.

“Mickey is our manager now and Mickey is our manager going forward,’’ Van Wagenen declared.

How far forward?

“I think that I don’t want to leave this as an ambiguous statement,’’ Van Wagenen said. “We intend to win games and I think Mickey is going to be a part of that future. It’s as simple as that.’’

Uh, not exactly. Did that mean he was guaranteeing Callaway’s job -- he signed through 2020 -- at least until the end of this season?

“I think to make assumptions about a year and a half from now, or to make assumptions with variables that are like, I foresee the sun coming up tomorrow,’’ Van Wagenen said. “I don’t mean to be cute with this, but there is support from every part of this organization that we believe Mickey is going to be our manager as we go forward, and that expectation wouldn’t change as we go forward to the next season and hopefully to winning games and winning championships.’’

With that, he summoned Callaway -- who stood awkwardly against a wall as Van Wagenen professed his (slightly wavering) support -- to the stage, where the two shared a hearty handshake.

If I had been Callaway, I would have checked to make sure I still had all my fingers.

Because calling a press conference to announce you’re not firing your manager serves no purpose other than to remind everyone that such an option is not only very much on the table, but is actively being discussed.

And even though the Mets held on to beat the Washington Nationals, 5-3, Monday night, it would be foolish to assume the ice beneath Callaway’s feet has suddenly gotten thicker.

Clearly, the Mets are a troubled ship, and just as clearly, Callaway is a very flawed captain. His bullpen decisions are head-scratchers, he seems to lack real authority among his players -- did you notice how they rallied to save his job this weekend in Miami -- and it appears he lacked the fortitude to express clearly to Robinson Cano that he was being benched Monday night for loafing out of the box in two out of the three games against the Marlins, leaving the 36-year-old second baseman, also a former Van Wagenen client, believing he was simply getting a pre-planned day off.

And in his first 200 or so games as a big-league manager, all Callaway has shown himself capable of doing is getting his team off to a rousing start -- 11-1 last year, 5-1 this year -- followed by a precipitous collapse. More and more, as a manager Callaway is looking like what he was two years ago, a very good pitching coach who is now one level above his true ceiling.

But the truth is, Callaway is not the Mets biggest problem. Van Wagenen is. He got his job by telling owner Jeff Wilpon what he wanted to hear -- that all the Mets needed to be contenders again was not major surgery but some minor tinkering under the hood -- and then proceeded to populate his roster with aging, overpaid players, many of whom had been his clients at CAA.

His flagship acquisition, of course, was Cano, who he had sold to the Seattle Mariners for 10 years at $240 million. That coup was undone, of course, when he decided as a rookie GM to take on the final five years of Cano’s deal -- always the least productive of any free agent deal at an only-slightly reduced rate.

Van Wagenen chose to make Cano the face of his first Mets roster. In return, he has gotten a .245 batting average, a .667 OPS and the embarrassment of watching his prize free agent dog it on the basepaths twice in one weekend.

Now, if only that were his only misstep. He also chose to give Jed Lowrie, another former client, a two-year, $20 million contract. He has yet to play a game for the Mets. He gave Wilson Ramos two years at $19 million. He’s hitting .238, has two home runs and Jacob deGrom can’t pitch to him. He gave Jeurys Familia three years and $30 million but is terrified to use him as a set-up man, although with Seth Lugo on the IL, he now has no choice.

As for deGrom, Van Wagenen gave him five years and $137.5 million a few days before the season started. deGrom, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, started his season with 13 scoreless innings over two starts. Since then, he is 1-5 with a 5.31 ERA and just allowed six earned runs in five innings to, you guessed it, the Marlins.

And it only seemed fitting that this most bizarre Mets day would begin with the surreal announcement that Yoenis Cespedes, for whom Van Wagenen had negotiated a four-year, $110 million contract as his agent two seasons ago, had suffered a broken ankle in a mysterious accident on his Florida ranch over the weekend, where he was supposedly rehabbing injuries to both heels.

So strange has Cespedes’ tenure with the Mets been that a reporter asked, in all seriousness, whether his injury had resulted from a fall from a horse.

“It was not a fall from a horse,’’ Van Wagenen said, adding rather significantly, “It was a non-baseball related activity.’’

That raised the possibility that the Mets might be able to get out from under the albatross of Cespedes’ contract, which runs through the 2020 season.

And in true Mets fashion, that turned out to be the best news of the afternoon.

Clearly, Van Wagenen’s first season as a GM has been anything but a success so far, and his first deals as a buyer rather than a seller anything but bargains.

In that respect, he needs Callaway to remain his manager, at least for awhile, if only to use him as a shield against Wilpon’s well-known wrath.

As long as Callaway is there to take the bullets, Van Wagenen is relatively safe.

But of course, the point will come when Callaway will not be there to blame anymore and Van Wagenen will have to face the bullets unprotected.

Until that happens, however, Van Wagenen can continue to trot his manager out for public votes of confidence that on Monday seemed more like a public spanking.

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