What Challenges Await New Mets Manager Luis Rojas?

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Luis Rojas’ rise to become a major-league manager was somewhat conventional…until he actually got the job.

He started at the lowest rung, did odd jobs and made incremental steps throughout his career until he first made it to a big-league dugout as the quality control coach on former manager Mickey Callaway’s staff with the New York Mets in 2019. After Callaway’s ouster, Rojas initially interviewed for the job to replace him, but was passed over for Carlos Beltran. He was set to remain on Beltran’s staff. With the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal making its way to New York and engulfing Beltran as one of the player-ringleaders in the scheme, his parting with the club reopened the job. This time, the 38-year-old Rojas got the nod.

His introductory press conference was mundane with platitudes that the Mets and all organizations teach players and staff to use when speaking to the media. This was to be expected. Personality and star power is the last thing the Mets needed right now after the sudden end to Beltran’s reign, counted in days instead of years.

Still, Rojas will face challenges. How he handles them will dictate the success or failure of his tenure.

Garnering respect from the veterans

Many of the Mets young players already played for or worked with Rojas and expressed their happiness with the move. It’s the veteran players who need to be onboard. Would they have viewed Beltran any differently than Rojas because Beltran was a superstar player? Perhaps at first. However, if Beltran was making egregious strategic mistakes and was clumsy in manager-player relations, how fast would they turn on him?

Will there be instances where Rojas needs to discipline the players? There always are. It helps him that the Mets are generally populated by good guys. This is a byproduct from the reign of former GM Sandy Alderson. One of Alderson’s first orders of business when he took charge was to weed out problem players from the bottom of the organization to the top. Since Rojas was a key minor-league staff member, he was a necessary part of that process.

It will help him that the star, veteran players who are impossible to truly discipline – Jacob deGrom, Marcus Stroman, Michael Conforto – are not the type to give him grief. Noah Syndergaard might get on his nerves, but it won’t be to the Matt Harvey degree, the barometer for the Mets in how much they’re going to tolerate.

Yoenis Cespedes and Robinson Cano will run to first base at their own pace and hustle when they feel like it, but that would have been a problem with Beltran and any manager the Mets hired. Showalter or Dusty Baker would not have been able to do any more than Rojas to stop that. It helps that Rojas is Dominican and is on the same wavelength as Cano and Cespedes. Every manager they’ve had shrugged it off out of necessity. The discipline will be closer to “Don’t make me look bad to the other players” and not “YOU’RE BENCHED!!!”

The days of the Ralph Houk/Billy Martin-type closing the door to the manager’s office and challenging players to a fight ended 35 years ago and it doesn’t matter who the manager is.

Steve Cohen’s pending majority ownership and how it impacts the club

Rojas signed a two-year contract with options. It sounds short-term, but Beltran’s contract was for three years. Most managers hired today sign short-term deals. Even the “name” managers who were hired this offseason – Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon with the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim respectively – signed three-year contracts. Obviously, Rojas’ deal is for less money and with far less say-so than those decorated MLB managers have, but the duration is not significantly different.

According to the New York Post, the Mets current front office led by Brodie Van Wagenen is concerned about its future if and when Steve Cohen takes control of the club. This will have a direct impact on Rojas. Of course, it’s possible that Cohen will come in with a wrecking ball and clean house to bring in his own people. Barring a World Series win in 2020, there is little that can be done to change that. It’s likely in the back of their minds, but as a main objective in ingratiating themselves with the incoming majority owner, it’s relatively pointless.

Cohen has the cash to go in whatever direction he wants.

If he wants to buy a championship fast, Dave Dombrowski specializes in that style of operation and is out there waiting for his next opportunity.

If he wants to go the data-centric route, he would have no compunction in hiring the currently suspended Jeff Luhnow to run the team.

Either way, Van Wagenen’s status is tenuous. Rojas? Judging by the history of the two extremes mentioned – Dombrowski and Luhnow – he’s exactly the type of manager they would hire. Dombrowski thought outside the box when hiring Brad Ausmus when he was running the Detroit Tigers and Alex Cora when he was running the Boston Red Sox. Luhnow likes younger managers with the skill set Rojas brings to the table.

You never know until you know

Had Twitter been in existence in 2000, the hot takes and savage assessments of the New England Patriots hiring Bill Belichick would still be rehashed, retweeted and mocked for the past two decades and forevermore. And after his five years in Cleveland as head coach of the Browns – pockmarked with the team moving to Baltimore and Belichick’s miserable personality alienating a significant portion of the organization, the media and its fan base – those assessments would not have been wrong.

Many of the best managers and coaches in sports came from nowhere and elicited confusion and outright anger. On the other hand, name managers and coaches have taken jobs with great fanfare and enthusiasm only to see their tenures end in disaster.

Trey Hillman had a sterling resume when he was hired to manage the Kansas City Royals after the 2007 season. In fact, he was on the short list to replace Joe Torre as manager of the New York Yankees and might have gotten the job given his relationship with general manager Brian Cashman and how respected he was within the organization. It was only when he was managing the Royals that his flaws were clear. He was inconsistent with his strategies, could not handle the media (in Kansas City – imagine him in New York!), and accrued a 152-207 record in two-plus seasons before being fired.

Torre himself was ridiculed as a mediocre journeyman manager when he replaced Buck Showalter as Yankees manager in 1996. Showalter is now categorized as the old-school manager many teams avoid so the front office can maintain control. At the time the Yankees hired him in 1993, he was using statistics, arcane numbers and his own analysis to decide how to deploy his players. Showalter’s minor-league managing bona fides are eerily similar to Rojas’.

Terry Francona had spent four years managing a bad Philadelphia Phillies team with the results to prove it. After he was fired, he spent three years in a variety of jobs in front offices and on other managers’ staffs before being a surprise – and questionable – hire for the Red Sox to replace the reviled Grady Little. Look at him now.

In a link to Rojas, his father Felipe Alou was passed over for the Montreal Expos managing job in favor of a new, hot name in Tom Runnels. The veteran Expos players shook their head at the 36-year-old Runnels. He didn’t help his cause by arriving at a spring training game in military fatigues and saying, “We have to win today.” Remember, it was spring training.

That he later said it was a joke – and it probably was – is irrelevant. When he was fired, he was replaced by Alou who was an organizational lifer, had been intensely loyal to the Expos, had respect throughout the organization and in baseball in general, and whose deftness at handling the clubhouse in making strategic decisions was welcomed. Alou epitomized being in the right place at the right time to get the opportunity previous denied him, the same as his son.

How these men got the job means nothing. The opportunity supersedes credentials.

If the resumes of Beltran and Rojas were placed side by side in a blind taste test, who would have been the better choice? The former star player who had never managed a game in his life or the young baseball lifer from a decorated family in the sport who worked his way up from the bottom? Beltran’s star power might have gotten him the job, but Rojas’ resume may have earned it.

Rojas is well-equipped to do the job effectively. His future depends on his results on and off the field. It could be argued that he should have gotten the job in the first place. Like all managers, the only way to determine whether it was the right hire will be in retrospect.