"Manny Ramirez?" he asked, as though the surname were in question.
Manny Ramirez, his questioner nodded.
"It's rare that you get that type of talent," the Mets manager finally admitted. "Would you like to add that? Yeah. Would you like to add something else? Yeah. But hey, we have to deal with what we have."
What they have, Manuel insisted, is a team wholly capable of making the postseason for the first time in three years, thanks in large part to the bullpen acquisitions of Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz. Even if the Mets can't acquire one of their top starting-pitching targets -- namely, Oliver Perez or Ben Sheets -- between now and Spring Training, Manuel still believes that his club has added enough.
And he was in a mood for believing. Manuel traveled to Manhattan on Tuesday morning to visit the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, one of the city's largest. There, he joined City Harvest in unloading and delivering food from one of the charity's trucks, in an effort to draw attention to the soup kitchen's growing need. Manuel also shot footage for a public service announcement for City Harvest, an organization that feeds 260,000 New Yorkers each week.
In between, he deflected questions regarding Ramirez, almost unquestionably the most talented and controversial free agent remaining on the open market.
The Mets aren't likely to land Ramirez -- COO Jeff Wilpon reportedly said last week that the team's ownership hasn't even discussed him. But a player of Ramirez's caliber nonetheless stirs conversation, whether it be relevant or not.
The discussion surrounding Ramirez, unsurprisingly, has had little to do with his prowess as a baseball player. He's good. That's a fact. But questions linger around his capacity to fracture a clubhouse, as Ramirez seemed to do throughout his final weeks in Boston.
And that discussion, in turn, led Manuel to reflect upon the leadership qualities of his returning players and the room for growth within his own clubhouse. Manuel isn't nearly ready to name a captain -- that's something for "a manager that's going to last long," he joked -- but he was willing to say that he expected one of his players, Jose Reyes, to take on more of a leadership role this season.
"I think that the next level for him," Manuel said, "is to add responsibility to him. That, to me, is maturation."
If Manuel can create a network of leaders in the clubhouse -- and the skipper said that he already considered Carlos Delgado, David Wright, Johan Santana and Carlos Beltran established leaders -- then he can manage with a more hands-off approach. And that's how Manuel envisions his style. Let the leaders lead, and let the manager guide.
About the only thing he would like more control over is Spring Training. Weeks away from his first camp as manager of the Mets, Manuel is faced with the prospect that quite a few of his players -- namely, Wright, Delgado, Beltran, Santana, Rodriguez, Reyes, Putz, Pedro Feliciano and Brian Schneider -- will be absent during the World Baseball Classic. More than half of his starting lineup will be gone, as well as his best starter and his two best relievers.
Manuel will have few players left to manage, though he also acknowledged that it could give his team an edge early in the season.
"In my first Spring Training, I would hope to have every player in camp, and to have the ability to reach out and talk to them on a daily basis," Manuel said. "But I do think that we can use the situation to our advantage, because they're playing at a level of competition a little different than Spring Training. It's almost like they've got to really gear up mentally for games, whereas Spring Training is almost a physical thing, not a mental thing. Here, I think we can use the [Classic] to accent the mental part of getting prepared."
That preparation may come with Perez and may come with Sheets, but will almost certainly come without Ramirez. And that, to Manuel, is fine. Regardless of whether or not Ramirez is worth the headaches -- and Manuel thinks he is -- the Mets manager stood firm in his belief that Ramirez represents an unneeded luxury.
"I have to deal with what I have," Manuel said. "And we have a pretty good team. We feel like we have enough tools to make it to the playoffs."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.