Mets’ heightened expectations put Mickey Callaway on hot seat

PORT ST. LUCIE — On Feb. 13, 2018, Mickey Callaway commandeered the front table at First Data Field’s news-conference room and proclaimed, “If we do not do things, it’s going to be on me.”

Precisely one year later, at the same table in the same room — and on the rare occasion of the Mets’ spring-training complex actually carrying the same name for consecutive seasons — an Associated Press reporter asked if Callaway felt equally responsible for and confident in this 2019 Mets team.

“I’m always going to feel like that, and we all know that’s the case with the manager,” he responded. “That’s what is expected, and I’m on board with that.”

Ah, but “always” does not capture what has occurred in the Mets’ universe over the past 365 days. Last year, with a middling group, Callaway did not truly wear the burden of expectations, and he earned another shot by elevating the campaign from a midseason tire fire to its ultimate destination of mere disappointment.

This year? It doesn’t go far enough to assert that Callaway should take the blame if this upgraded Mets club doesn’t at least contend deep into September. His new boss, general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, will get his share, too, if he gives Callaway too long a leash and doesn’t call upon new bench coach Jim Riggleman to deploy his particular set of skills.

The byproduct of the Mets’ aggressive winter is there’s much urgency to be relevant and much blame to spread if that mission fails.

“I think there’s always pressure,” Callaway said, “and we all welcome it.”

Whatever equity Callaway built with the 2018 Mets’ 31-20 run to the finish line — and with the starting rotation reviving after a catastrophic 2017 under the guidance of the former pitching coach Callaway and his respected pitching coach Dave Eiland — largely dissipated with the October hiring of Van Wagenen to run the team’s baseball operations. Van Wagenen didn’t hire Callaway, whom Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said publicly he wanted to retain. He did hire Riggleman as a bench coach.

And to be clear, Van Wagenen made a great hire that is not fundamentally toxic. Riggleman does not backstab or undermine. He will fully support Callaway’s efforts. He just happens to know how to run a ballgame and communicate with players, and he’s a guy to whom you can hand a club with the confidence that the trains will run on time.

The 66-year-old holds the unofficial record (the Elias Sports Bureau doesn’t track it) of being the interim manager for three different teams. In each of those instances — the 2008 Mariners, 2009 Nationals and 2018 Reds — he took over after horrible starts and the team played better under him.

“There’s no threats there,” said Callaway, who enters the second season of a three-year deal. “I’m excited to have his knowledge sitting next to me in the dugout.”

Ideally for the Mets, Callaway builds off his momentum from last year and benefits from Riggleman’s presence, and the Mets’ revamped group — with trade-deadline help from Van Wagenen and ownership — notches its first postseason appearance since 2016. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system currently pegs the Mets to finish 88-74, and FanGraphs sees the Mets going 85-77. Both projections figure to tick downward if the Phillies sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado and the Braves add Craig Kimbrel.

If the ideal scenario doesn’t play out, then Van Wagenen has given himself a clear Plan B which he must activate, lest this season go to waste after the Mets made several win-now maneuvers.

Wednesday’s proceedings carried not a touch of déjà vu regardless of the identical date and place. So much has changed here in a year’s time. And Van Wagenen, having inherited the honeymoon vibe Callaway emitted last year, clearly does not fear making more changes if necessary. It’s on the general manager to do whatever is necessary to get this Mets team where it can go.

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