- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
From day one, you knew the job wasn’t going to be too big for Luis Rojas, when the rookie manager pulled Robinson Cano for Andres Gimenez’s superior defense in the late innings of the 2020 season opener. And he never shied away from a tough decision or ducked the tough questions during a trying year.
But we are going to find out a lot more about Rojas in his second season, in part because expectations for the Mets are so much higher, and in part because a deeper roster is going to test his decision-making in so many ways, especially on the question of offense versus defense.
At no fewer than four positions every day the manager will have the option, at least to some extent, of choosing between bat and glove -- if not to start the game then perhaps at some point during it, depending on the score.
You saw reminders of those potential decisions on Tuesday in the Mets’ 8-3 win over the Astros in Port St. Lucie:
Dom Smith hit a three-run home run, but also got turned around awkwardly in left field on a ball just over the wall that may have been catchable by a more experienced outfielder.
And Brandon Nimmo made a nice, leaping catch at the fence in right-center field to rob Alex Bregman of a home run, but a couple of innings later allowed Taylor Jones’ high pop fly to fall in front of him for a two-run double. In both cases, Nimmo’s positioning in deep center field was a factor, perhaps helping him get to Bregman’s ball. But then it clearly prevented him from catching what should have been a routine out.
Remember, Nimmo is playing extra-deep by design, because he had so much trouble going back on balls in center field last season. He says he feels more comfortable playing deep and the Mets feel he’s better coming in on balls, though it didn’t look like it when he got a late jump on Jones’ hit.
“Based on where he was today, he could be playing the deepest center field in the league,” one scout told me. “I understand why they’re positioning him there -- he had trouble tracking balls hit over his head last year, and I’m not sure if he gets to Bregman’s ball if wasn’t that deep. But his pitchers aren’t going to like it if balls like that are falling for hits that far into the outfield.”
The Mets, of course, decided they could live with that compromise when they chose not to go the extra mile to sign George Springer and end their years of searching for an accomplished center fielder.
On the other hand, Nimmo has looked great with the bat so far, hitting .417 with a .500 on-base percentage in the leadoff spot. And without a DH in the National League this season, as it appears will be the case, signing Springer would have created a squeeze play in left between Nimmo and Smith.
Anyway, the point is that Rojas could have plenty of juggling to consider on a daily basis. Will he start Kevin Pillar in center field against lefties? Will he substitute Pillar -- or Albert Almora -- for Nimmo in the late innings with a lead, and if so, does that begin a domino-effect of Nimmo to left and Smith to first to replace Pete Alonso?
And don’t forget third base. As I wrote a few days ago, Luis Guillorme is making a strong case for playing time there because of his outstanding glove work, but also because J.D. Davis plays below-average defense.
You can even make the case that the Mets would be best off defensively at times by putting Guillorme at second base, where he turns a lightning-quick pivot, while moving Jeff McNeil to third.
But that makes for a lot of maneuvering, which can be good in the sense that it keeps everyone on the roster involved, but it can also bruise some egos along the way.
Which brings us back to Rojas. He immediately set a standard of sorts last year with his handling of Cano, and he did it the right way, discussing his intention with the veteran second baseman ahead of time. Furthermore, he seems to have a strong rapport with his players, several of whom played for him in the minors, to the point where he wasn’t afraid to criticize them publicly -- a rarity these days for any manager.
However, that doesn’t mean he’ll have unanimous support if he’s especially creative in trying to bridge the gap between offense and defense.
“You need buy-in from everybody if you’re making a lot of changes on a daily basis,” said a Mets’ source, “and Luis has the type of relationship with his players where he can get that. He’s very good at communicating with players on his plans and he’s earned their respect and their trust.
“But there’s going to be pressure on everybody this year, and if they don’t get off to a great start, he runs the risk of losing some of that buy-in. You have to take some individual situations into consideration too: If Alonso’s having a good year, do you want to mess with his head by pulling him for defense late in games?
“That stuff can be a fine line for any manager to walk.”
True enough, and while Rojas last year looked and sounded like someone who could grow into a successful big-league manager, it’s worth remembering his team underachieved, hurt as much by fundamental mistakes in various facets of the game as by bad starting pitching, and so he has a lot of proving to do in 2021.
Managers are usually judged most for how they handle their pitchers, especially in this era of such heavy bullpen usage. But for a Mets’ team whose defense has been a major problem for years now, you can bet Rojas’ decision-making on that front will come under heavy scrutiny as well.