John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The potential for Carlos Beltran to excel at his new job as manager of the Mets is rooted mostly in his acclaimed baseball acumen and his ability to connect with players as a deep thinker who works hard at developing personal relationships.
In recent years, in fact, an image of Beltran as a baseball savant has emerged around the game, especially in the influence he had on the Houston Astros' 2017 championship team, when he was credited for picking up the way Yu Darvish was tipping pitches in that postseason.
During the Yankees-Astros ALCS that same October, then-Houston bench coach Alex Cora, who would go on to win a championship as a rookie manager with the Red Sox, told me he fully expected Beltran to be a great manager someday.
"Nobody sees more when they're watching a baseball game than Carlos," Cora said then. "I feel like I know the game very well but I can always learn something sitting with him during a game."
That's high praise from a guy who has since proven to have an exceptional feel for the game himself, and it bodes well for Beltran's hiring.
But let's be honest, there's no way of knowing whether Beltran will prove to be an inspired choice by Brodie Van Wagenen or an unnecessary risk given that he could have hired Joe Girardi instead.
The experience factor loomed particularly large in this decision mostly because first-time manager Mickey Callaway proved to be a bad manager, and once the Mets essentially passed on Girardi, it put this hire under the harshest of scrutiny, no matter which of the first-time candidates they chose.
What Beltran brings, unlike Eduardo Perez and Tim Bogar, is the respect that goes with being a superstar player, and a recent one at that, something that affords him instant credibility in a clubhouse of current players.
Yet even that only goes so far. If Beltran doesn't prove adept at in-game managing, which was Callaway's biggest flaw, players won't care so much about what he did as a player. If it turns out he's not the communicator everyone says he'll be, the same rules apply.
And perhaps most relevant in Beltran's case, if he doesn't have the thick skin to deal with media scrutiny in New York, to the point where it affects his day-to-day personality around the ballclub, that too will be seen and even felt in the clubhouse.
That's the one question about Beltran I would have, as someone who covered him during his playing career, and one I heard on Friday when talking to people who interacted with him during his days as a player with the Mets: will his sensitivity to criticism be a problem?
"He was moody and unlikeable, at least in his early years with the Mets," said one person who was in the Mets' clubhouse a lot for some of the Beltran years. "He wasn't a leader, or anything close.
"Everyone says he has matured a lot, that he's a different guy now, and I don't have reason to doubt it, but I still wonder how he'll handle being questioned every day about the decisions he makes. The concept of Carlos Beltran as a manager is really interesting, because he's such a cerebral guy. I just don't know how if the reality of it is going to work as well."
I think there's some validity to such skepticism, at least partly because I've seen Mets managers over the years who lost their grip on the job because they were overwhelmed by media criticism, from Buddy Harrelson to Jeff Torborg to Art Howe to Callaway, who flipped out on a reporter last summer in Chicago after being grilled about a tough loss at Wrigley Field.
With all of that in mind, Beltran's request to have Terry Collins as his bench coach, as reported by SNY's Andy Martino, is a savvy idea.
Collins, who had a great rapport with the media, even during tough times, would be an ideal sidekick who could advise the new manager how to handle situations and be someone to smooth over relationships if necessary.
No matter what, however, there will be times the heat falls on Beltran, and how he responds to it could go a long way in determining his long-term fate.
You'd think he'll be good at the in-game decision-making, given all the praise for his baseball IQ, and that's a huge part of keeping the peace with the media. But many a manager has told me over the years that the decision-making isn't always so easy in the dugout, especially if you haven't done it before.
"You can do all the preparation you want," Davey Johnson told me once, "but you better be able to think on your feet in that dugout because the game comes at you faster than you can believe."
That's where experience does matter. That's why fans wanted Girardi. And that's why a current major-league hitting coach told me a couple of weeks ago that he felt Perez would be a better choice than Beltran, because Perez had coached in the big leagues and managed winter ball teams before working games for ESPN in recent years.
I checked in with that same coach after the Beltran news broke on Friday, and he said, "I wasn't knocking Carlos. I know how highly-respected he is around the game, how good he is at picking up little things like pitch-tipping. I just don't know if he'll be a good manager. How could anybody know?"
That's a fair question, which is why Van Wagenen is taking an obvious gamble here. Girardi was the safe choice, the logical choice after the Callaway debacle, yet the GM chose to go looking for the next great manager.
A lot of people think Beltran could be that guy. Right now there's just no way to know.