Luis Rojas has chance to show Mets what he’s really made of

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There are times it feels like things around the Mets are moving at a thousand miles an hour. The new owner, Steve Cohen, enjoys cracking wise on Twitter, and seemed to have the time of his life greeting season-ticket holders at Citi Field the other day. The old (and new) baseball ops chief, Sandy Alderson, is busily reforming the roster.

There’s a new GM in place, and folks all over baseball seem to be falling all over themselves to offer positive endorsements of Jared Porter. Scott Boras is saying hopeful things about the Mets for the first time in years. And there are still a couple of free agents that may have orange-and-blue targets on their back.

Hop on the speeding locomotive, or get out of the way.

Almost lost in all of this is the fact the Mets decided to take pause in one awfully important area, chose to give a second chance to Luis Rojas to be their field manager in 2021. This, of course, didn’t have to be a given. A new boss could’ve desired a fancy hire in such a high-profile gig. Cohen himself said on the day he met the public for the first time: “I don’t like people learning on the job on my dime.”

Also, the Mets finished 26-34, tied for last in the NL East with the Nationals in a year when they were expected to sniff the postseason, especially with eight playoff teams in the National League. Underachievement ruled the day.

If Rojas had been fired, or reassigned, it would’ve been hard to argue.

But it is also a signal that two things are absolutely true about Alderson’s grip on the team’s immediate destiny. For one, he clearly has final say on items such as this, because even in Year 2 Rojas will continue to learn on the job, and on Cohen’s dime. But also: Alderson knows Rojas, he helped set him on his precocious path to managing in the big leagues at age 38. And believes Rojas is better than what he showed in his first season.

“There’s always so much room for growth in this game, especially first-year managers,” Rojas said Wednesday afternoon in a Zoom call with reporters. “So many things to learn from, especially in this game.”

As easy-to-justify as a Rojas dismissal would have been, it also would have smacked of unfairness. Nothing about Rojas’ first year in the big chair was normal, an obstacle course that would’ve been just as difficult for a salty vet with 25 years on the job to handle.

He got the job in the first place in the wake of the Carlos Beltran mess, less than a month before the start of spring training. Then the virus hit, shutting camp down in the middle of March, bolting the sport’s doors for 3 ½ months. Then came a 60-game sprint of a season, with gaggles of new rules, with the threat of shutdown loitering in every clubhouse and airplane terminal and hotel.

“This year was a challenge,” Rojas said, “but it has been a challenge for everyone.”

Were there growing pains? There were. He bears the manager’s usual load of blame for a calamitous bullpen, and for the way he handled his rotation. But if there was one overriding complaint about Rojas in 2020 it was this: he never seemed to click the button into “high-urgency” mode. The Mets hung around the periphery of the playoffs despite never once putting a winning streak together and it never seemed Rojas understood that the season was leaking away.

Here’s the thing, though:

If we were talking about a normal season, he would have absolutely been right in handling those 60 games as he did. Treating games 51-56 at the end of May like the first hours of October was, in every year played from 1869 until last year, insane. Patience prevails. The outlier season did Rojas no favors — and, speaking frankly, Rojas did the Mets no favors.

But he was a distinct upgrade over Mickey Callaway, as low a bar as that might have been to clear. His players — so many of whom worked with him in the minors — never betrayed him. And urgency might not have mattered all that much when he had to send Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha to the mound two days out of every five, when Pete Alonso suffered through an all-out sophomore jinx, when there was so little clutch hitting by anyone.

So he gets — with luck — a full 162 now. He looks hopefully to the news, to the projected availability of vaccines. He yearns for a chance to see how he does in the midst of normalcy, and that is good, because he also now lives by a credo that most Mets employees would be wise to adopt.

“I’m highly motivated,” he said, “by the words of Mr. Cohen.”

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