Bill Madden: Buck Showalter on the challenge of managing Mets without Edwin Diaz

Tribune Content Agency

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Nobody has to tell Buck Showalter he’s going to have to manage his butt off this season if he is to get Steve Cohen’s $336 million Mets back to October and beyond. Quite simply it is going to be an Edwin Diaz-less adventure for 162 games.

We were standing on the sidelines watching the Mets going through some pre-game drills at Clover Park the other day and, as it is with every conversation with the Mets manager this spring, it is hard not to bring up the elephant in the room. Showalter is moving on, as he has to, from the devastating turn of events of Diaz tearing the patellar tendon in his knee celebrating at the World Baseball Classic, but the void is immeasurable.

“Look,” he said, “in my opinion, Edwin had the greatest season of any closer in the history of baseball last year. I would challenge anyone to come up with a greater one.”

Certainly, in terms of dominance and value to the team’s success, Diaz’s 2022, in which he was nearly unhittable (1.31 ERA, 118 strikeouts and just 18 walks in 62 innings, 32 saves out of 35 opportunities), Showalter has a valid point. With the Mets holding on to first place most of the season, the vast majority of Diaz’s saves were of the high-leverage variety. For that reason, Cohen made Diaz his top priority last winter, signing him to a record (five-year, $102 million) contract for closers.

“To be honest,” Showalter said, “even before his injury I had already prepared for the fact that he wouldn’t be able to replicate what he did last year.”

As Showalter walked away for a minute to consult with one of his coaches, John Franco, who himself knows a little bit about the value of closers, was standing nearby and had overheard our conversation. “I know what you’re saying,” Franco said. “It’s a whole different thing for a manager when he doesn’t have that safety valve for the ninth inning. He’s gotta manage every game different.”

In all probability, Showalter will be managing with a variety of closers this season, which is why the one-year, $10 million contract to David Robertson, along with the two-year, $14.5 million deal for Adam Ottavino that were scoffed at by some opposing teams as excessive, now loom as important offseason signings. Early speculation has been that the 37-year-old Robertson, who has the most experience as a closer with 157 saves to his credit and 20 last year with the Cubs and Phillies, will get the nod as the principal closer, but Showalter wasn’t ready to go there. As the spring wears down to a close, he is still watching and evaluating a number of closer options, including a couple of interesting much-traveled veterans, 34-year-old lefty Brooks Raley and 29-year-old righty John Curtiss.

“Obviously Robertson gives you an advantage in that, as a righty, he is just as effective against left-handers,” Showalter said, “but we’ll probably operate by ‘lanes’.”

By that he presumably meant the righties will stay in their lanes and the lefties in theirs and how the opposing teams’ batting orders stack up in the eighth and ninth innings will dictate how he goes about closing out games.

From the get-go this spring, however, Showalter has been particularly high on the 6-3 Raley, who last year with the Rays — his fourth major league team in addition to five years in Japan with the Lotte Giants (2015-19) — set career bests for ERA (2.68), opponents OPS (.226), saves (6) and ranked eighth among AL pitchers in opponents batting average (.188). What most intrigued Showalter when the Mets acquired Raley from the Rays for minor league lefty Keyshawn Askew back in December was his hard contact of only 24.6% of batted balls, according to Statcast.

As for Curtiss, primarily a set-up and middle innings reliever with the Twins, Angels, Marlins and Brewers from 2017-21, the Mets thought enough of him to sign him to a two-year contract in ‘21 knowing he was going to miss all of last year recovering from his second Tommy John surgery. It was during his rehab last year he became bored by not being allowed to throw any breaking balls right away so he began experimenting with a change-up and says he feels confident to now use it as a viable pitch in his repertoire. While it is still likely Curtiss’ primary role will be more in the middle innings, hearing Showalter talk about him makes you wonder if his “lane” might also lead to the ninth inning on occasion.

“He has that ‘it’ factor,” Showalter said, meaning that Curtiss has an air of confidence about his ability in any situation.

Of course, none of these relievers have near the pedigree of Diaz and you have to believe Showalter is privately hoping one or two will emerge with a breakthrough season. Once Diaz went down, it was pretty clear the Mets were going to have to replace him from within. No teams are trading their closers in the middle of spring training. For that reason, this figures to be the most challenging season of Showalter’s distinguished managing career where, as Franco said, he’ll have to manage differently all 162 games.

The Mets all-time saves leader with 276, Franco is in camp as a special instructor and, at 62, still is trim and in great shape — which prompted me to ask if he thought perhaps about volunteering himself for Showalter’s ninth-inning dilemma.

“Only if they move the mound in 40 feet,” Franco said, smiling.