The Mets reach into their murky, mercurial past to find the guy who’ll lead them to a bright future. But was Carlos Beltran the best hire or the best story?
Every year, more players I saw play become managers I’ll watch manage. They’re not always good at the job, but it’s nice to see one of the more appreciated commendations in baseball lingo—the ‘baseball lifer’—play out in front of you. This time, one of my personal favorites, Carlos Beltran, earns the accolade as he becomes the newest manager of the New York Mets.
Beltran’s return to the Mets is a homecoming: the nine-time all-star spent six full seasons and one partial campaign in Queens, manning center field and leading New York to one postseason appearance. He was arguably his most successful during his tenure in Flushing, making the All-Star Game five times, winning the Gold Glove three times, the Silver Slugger twice, and producing his two-best WAR seasons in the blue and orange. While Beltran came up in the Kansas City Royals system, winning Rookie of the Year in 1999, and had a legendary postseason during a stint with the Houston Astros in 2004, it was during his time with the Mets that he became a household name and a superstar.
Beltran arrived in 2005 along with Pedro Martinez and celebrated rookies, David Wright and Jose Reyes, just as Mike Piazza‘s run as the face of the franchise was wrapping up. Beltran struggled out of the gate, but his signing signaled that the Mets were ready to contend for the first time since their 2000 World Series appearance. Beltran, with Wright, Reyes, and the newly-acquired Carlos Delgado around him, guided the Mets through an incredible 2006 season, where they fell one game short of a trip to the World Series. He finished fourth in MVP voting that season. It would be the Mets’ last trip to October until 2015.
Beltran is deeply tied to a franchise that casts success in cameos but regularly features failure. His 2006 season starred both: dominant and dynamic at the plate and in the field, but the indelible image of the season and his time with the franchise was the called third strike he took in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. Perhaps unfairly, the backdoor curve and Beltran’s stilled bat are more synonymous with Beltran the Met than his place all over franchise leaderboards and his indisputable rank as the best center fielder in Mets history.
The vitriol for Beltran has softened farther removed from the at-bat and what was an acrimonious end to his time with the Mets when the Wilpons and the Mets organization took umbrage with Beltran’s decision to get knee surgery. Fred, the elder, publicly called Beltran a fraction of the player he was after Beltran was traded, considering his Mets contract (7 years, $119 million) an overpay. He later apologized for words that, to this day, ooze with the rhetoric of owners taking their role too literally.
Beltran’s relationship with the franchise shouldn’t obscure what is expected of him as a manager, though it likely played an influence in his hiring. It is a backpage winner of a hire from a team that’s grown especially interested in media coverage or at least positive press. After retiring a World Series champion in 2017, Beltran interviewed for the manager position with the New York Yankees and eventually spent a season with the Bombers as a special assistant to GM Brian Cashman.
Mets fans may be wary of a rookie manager, especially on the heels of the two-year tumult that was the Mickey Callaway era. Callaway often struggled both on and off the field in his first and perhaps only managerial stint, and the fanbase grew impatient with his learning curve, particularly on a team with a likely two-time Cy Young winner and the presumptive NL Rookie of the Year.
Coupled with the availability of veteran candidates with proven track records like Buck Showalter, Joe Girardi (who eventually landed in division-rival Philadelphia’s dugout), and Joe Maddon, the skeptical fan could be understandably peeved. The theory: a cheaper hire of an inexperienced manager who would win headlines was dressed up with sentiment and nostalgia to distract from yet another Mets move that wasn’t driven by on-field success. It doesn’t exactly beggar belief.
Count me as a part of another subset that doesn’t quite know what the modern-day MLB manager is supposed to do or be. Front office vessel? Clubhouse caretaker? Live and die by a binder? It seems to me, at least anecdotally, that you only really notice the impact of a manager game by game when they blow a pitching change. Callaway drew regular criticism for the way he managed New York’s bullpen, and recent high-profile examples include Dave Roberts calling on Clayton Kershaw for essentially surname-related reasons, and A.J. Hinch leaving his ace of aces unused in the literal last game of the season.
Beltran’s reported preferred bench coach, Terry Collins, typified the muddled role of the present-day manager, conveniently during his time in the Mets clubhouse. He regularly put Jeurys Familia in difficult spots during the 2015 World Series, spots where Familia expectedly failed. That Collins managed two seasons after the 2015 NL pennant-winning team was likely only because the Mets unexpectedly made a deep October run.
If Beltran proves to be a bad hire for an October slip-up or two, that’d actually be great! It’ll take a few fall appearances before calls for his job make sense, so starved is the franchise for some postseason excursions, let alone success.
His immediate goal is to take a top-heavy roster to the playoffs. The talent is there, but the window might be tight. The Mets have minimal backup maturing in their system, and they’ve historically been inconsistent spenders, mostly choosing to keep the war chest sealed unless they’re on the brink. In a division that houses the World Series winner who won their rings from the Wild Card spot, there isn’t room for growing pains. It’s not unreasonable to think an 86-win team that improved by nine wins from the season prior should be a contender. But the win-loss trend conceals some critical systemic problems and contextual challenges awaiting Beltran in both the near- and long-term.
The start of Beltran’s Mets managerial career has some poetic symmetry to the start of his Mets playing career. Back in 2005, Beltran joined a franchise eager to win, having improved by seven wins, with a mix of productive veterans and talented young studs filling the roster, desperate to recapture recent winning days. That team added a league champion banner in short order. Could Beltran be the one to lead these Mets, who share similar traits in the broad strokes to the teams for which he patrolled center field, back to the top of the NL? Could he, poignantly, be the one to take them even further? To help them achieve something the franchise hasn’t in over three decades? Could he be the one to take them somewhere he couldn’t get them 15 years and a backdoor curve ago?
Is poetry a good reason to hire a manager? Probably not. But it’ll make a classic if it works.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.