The skipper is here, full of his usual mix of amusing and head-scratching thoughts. He volunteered, multiple times, the idea that the Mets need to get off to a good start this season.

For his job security, obviously. But I think he means it for the team as a whole.

Said Manuel: "I think, for us, because of the troubles and the struggles we had last year in keeping people healthy and playing well, I think it’s important to get off to a good start, to invigorate the people again to come out and be a part of what hopefully we can accomplish."

Maybe he's putting too much overt pressure on himself and his players. Will he go to the well too often on a hot reliever, early in the season, in order to fulfill that mandate?

On the other hand, maybe it makes sense to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Willie Randolph, in kicking off the 2008 season, tried to ignore the Collapse of '07, and that didn't work, either.

On more specific matters:

--I'd think most of you would pleased to know that Manuel considers Angel Pagan the clear leader, over newcomer Gary Matthews, Jr., in the competition to start in centerfield while Carlos Beltran rehabilitates.

"I’ll have to take a look at it, no doubt about that, but I still have to give Angel every opportunity. ...He played extremely well for us, statistically speaking. "…He also, the last couple of years, has started off real well. So we need that. Anything that can give us a jump start is going to be very important for us."

As I said...he's really focused on the "good start" thing.

--At catcher, Manuel said he considered Omir Santos to be the starter, but it wasn't an enthusiastic endorsement. Of Josh Thole, he said, "We are definitely going to continue to take a good look at Josh. The one thing about Josh is that Josh kind of balances out the lineup. He’s a left-handed hitter. We’ll take a look at him, talk to the people that saw him play winter ball, see how much progression he made, go from there. It’s not out of the question (that he starts)."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

--As to seeing Kelvim Escobar and Ryota Igarashi pitch: "You know what? I’m anxious to see that. Because that's going to be a critical part, too, for us. That eighth inning, for me, is always an important inning.

"I’d love to have a go-to guy in the eighth just as you have in the ninth. I think the good teams have that. If we can identify that those guys will be the guys, or they will be guys we can count on, that’s going to be huge for us."

The key to determining that eighth-inning setup man, Manuel said, will be strike-throwing.  "The ballpark we have, the size of the park we have, we’ve got to throw strikes and play good defense. If we do those things, we have a shot."

--On adding a starting pitcher: "I think that's one of the challenges we have. I didn’t think the pool of people in free agency was something that you said, 'Dang, this is going to be (great).

"I thought you had the one big guy that Boston acquired who has some good history. But I think …Pelfrey, he’s coming off a tough year. Oliver Perez, John Maine, if those guys pitch and perform to what we think are their capabilities, we should be fine. I thought Jonathon Niese represented himself well, even in the brief time we saw him.

@NewsdaySports

"I think everybody looks for pitching. I don’t think the inventory out there is as great."

On that note, Jon Heyman reports, this afternoon, that the Mets don't appear to be a frontrunner to sign Ben Sheets.
 

--Last year, Manuel pounded home the idea of situational hitting during spring training. This year? "It’s the pitching and defense. We spent a lot of time last spring on the hitting program. We think we have that in place. It probably needs some tweaking here and there. But we have to play better defense. Interior defense. If we can do that, we feel it will make our pitchers better."

--And finally, on the pressure on him, as voiced last October when Jeff Wilpon said Manuel and Omar Minaya needed to "step up": "They (owners) have the freedom to speak, and that’s part of what they do. For me, I’m going to contineut to do what I do, and try to do it the best that I can, regardless of what pressure’s here and pressure’s there. I’ve got to get a team ready to play. I’ve got 162 games.

"I do know it’s important to get off to a good start, for us, because of the way we played last year."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

At this point, it's fair to look ahead, well down the road, and predict that Manuel will wind up being a small figure in Mets history. At the moment, though, I'm intrigued by how Manuel handles all of this. He's a compelling character _ unlike, say, Art Howe, whose demise was utterly predictable and boring.