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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

The pressure's on Mickey Callaway after a shaky first season 

Mets manager Mickey Callaway talks to reporters on

Mets manager Mickey Callaway talks to reporters on Wednesday after a spring training workout in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A year after putting a bull's-eye on his back, followed by a humbling 85-loss season in Flushing, Mickey Callaway sat in front of the same microphone, on the same date (Feb. 13) at First Data Field, and tried to deliver the same winning message for the franchise as he did at the start of his rookie campaign.

What Callaway has to realize, however, is just how dramatically different his situation is now. All he has to do is look around at the new faces, from the front office to the seat next to him on the dugout bench. Last year, to kick off spring training, Callaway proclaimed that if the Mets didn’t do “something special,” then it was “going to be on me.”

Well, the Mets were a dumpster fire in 2018, yet Callaway was one of the few to survive it, despite his team's cratering after an 11-1 start and numerous missteps from the former AL pitching coach who didn’t look quite ready to be an NL manager. Such is the luxury of a three-year contract.

Instead, everyone else paid the price. Sandy Alderson stepped down as GM because of health reasons, then later was replaced permanently in November by Brodie Van Wagenen, who reshaped the front office and gutted Callaway’s original coaching staff, leaving only pitching coach Dave Eiland in the same role.

Van Wagenen easily could have pushed to jettison Callaway. It’s not unusual for GMs to want their own hand-picked manager. But firing him so hastily would have reflected poorly on the franchise, and there is a belief among the club’s decision-makers that Callaway still has the ability to climb the learning curve.

Only this time, the Mets have hedged their bet by bringing in Jim Riggleman as bench coach, a savvy move that serves a twofold purpose. Ideally, Callaway in Year Two benefits from Riggleman’s NL game-calling expertise, the Mets live up to Brodie’s ambitious expectations, and everyone is happy at Citi Field, all the way into October.

And if not? The contingency plan already is in place, with Riggleman, 66, poised to take over for Callaway -- sooner rather than later. Riggleman has 1,630 games as a big-league manager on his resume, and with three of those five teams, he got the title on an interim basis, sliding over from a spot on the coaching staff.

That’s not to say Riggleman was hired specifically to bump off Callaway. But given his specific skill set, you can’t ignore the other dynamic at work here, even if Callaway won’t admit so publicly.

“Jim is a longtime, very experienced manager,” Callaway said Wednesday. “We’re lucky to have him and I’m lucky to have him next to me in the dugout, so there’s no threat there.”

We do expect Callaway to be better this year. Going from Cleveland to New York is a jarring culture shock, and the NL game should slow down for him somewhat now that Riggleman is riding shotgun. But Callaway is not in a very enviable position, working under a GM who didn’t hire him and has a lot to prove as a pioneer transitioning from CAA agent to running the Queens franchise.

Van Wagenen not only convinced the Wilpons to invest roughly $142 million this winter -- including a controversial trade for one of his former clients, Robinson Cano -- but he also has been relentlessly touting these upgraded Mets as a playoff team, and potential division winner. If these hyped-up plans go south, Van Wagenen is going to be looking for cover -- as GMs often do -- and guess who is going to make for a convenient scapegoat?

Callaway’s margin for error already had narrowed considerably once Van Wagenen was hired, but adding Riggleman reduced it to paper-thin width. He has to earn the trust of this clubhouse quickly over the next six weeks, and then show a deft touch with this super-versatile roster, which means figuring out how to deploy it successfully while keeping everyone happy with the arrangement.

Then, once the season starts, he’s got to win. Early and often.

“I think the pressure is welcomed,” Callaway said. “And I’m going to be better suited to handle things on a daily basis because of my experience last year.”

Another season like that, with a similar result, and you won’t find Callaway here at the same time, in the same place, next February.

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