Baseball’s business is such that there comes a time when loyalty and identity and pragmatism intersect, when teams and their impending free agents must decide whether their plans are congruous, and if so, on what terms.
Normally, I prefer to reserve a practical approach for this space, but the issues of Jose Reyes and David Wright and their futures with the Mets can’t be broached without more than a fair measure of emotion and sentimentality, at least in contextualizing the Mets’ upcoming decisions.
To understand the importance of these two players to the franchise and its fans is to know what it was like to be a Mets fan in, say, 2003. Art Howe was the manager then, and though he was an easy scapegoat for a hideously constructed team, the Mets were another Nyquil shot away from a coma under his watch.
Reyes and Wright (called up within a season of each other) were the antidote to that. They were young, and, more importantly, really good. They brought with them a palpable sense of hope and promise and all those great things that young, good players bring. Even before they arrived on the big league scene, they were tearing through the Minor Leagues, creating a buzz, and there was little doubt they were going to be stars. It was as if they weren’t subject to the doubts and uncertainty and cautionary tales reserved for hyped prospects. They were stars before they were actually stars, at least among Mets fans.
Reyes and Wright were the Mets’ first homegrown studs since their predecessors a generation earlier, the similarly alliterative duo of Doc and Darryl. Mets fans were starved for guys like this as much as they were a winner. Yes, the Amazin’s had won since the 1980s heyday, but those moments were all too fleeting, and the rosters of 1998-2001 were generally a mish-mosh of mercenaries, overachievers and flash-in-the-pan homegrown types. They were lovable in a way that only Mets fans, the bastard children of the Brooklyn Dodgers, can love a band of misfits. The star of those teams was Mike Piazza, deservingly adored but aging rapidly and excruciatingly scrutinized for seemingly everything — his horrendous defense, refusal to clock Roger Clemens, peculiar hair dye and, most bizarrely, his sexuality.
But Reyes and Wright were none of that. They were blue-chip prospects on the field and marketable off it, particularly the latter, a wholesome Virginia boy with the charm and aw-shucks demeanor to make him a perfect suitor for your younger sister. He became the Mets’ Derek Jeter, so calculating in his deft handling of the media that it was frequently vanilla. The language barrier precluded Reyes from similar ubiquity, but it may have been better that way. His raw talent was arguably the best the Mets had ever seen, and his buoyant disposition was the perfect complement to the too-good-to-be-true Wright, even if it bordered on tempestuous or violated old-school codes of conduct occasionally. It wasn’t malicious; it was fun.
Yes, Mets fans had every reason to get behind this, and they did.
These homegrown stars, along with Carlos Beltran, were the cornerstones of the 2005-08 Mets, teams that were short of greatness by no fault of their stars. Reyes’ average WAR those years was 4.8, Wright’s 6.7. By just about any measure, they were really, really good during that period, carrying teams (that were about as deep as kiddie pools) as far as they could.
By now, as we all know, general manager Omar Minaya’s house of cards has blown over on itself. A combination of untimely injuries, bad contracts and the always unforgiving force that is Father Time has exposed the Mets as a middling, directionless organization, devoid of leadership and vision from the top down. The fan base is weary of disappointment and inferiority complexes and irrelevance and all those things that come with being a Mets fan these days, and the affection for Reyes and Wright has worn off to a certain degree, though I’m pretty certain it could be reclaimed rather easily if the team were restored to its place among baseball’s elite as it was in 2006.
I’ve enumerated the complex relationship between the Mets (and their fans) and Reyes and Wright for the simple purpose of highlighting the difficult and taxing nature of the aforementioned crossroads, which are rapidly approaching for both players. Reyes has an $11 million option for 2011, which the Mets have wisely indicated they will exercise. But there are also rumors that they will look to trade their shortstop or let him walk in free agency. Wright is on the books through 2012, and the Mets have an option on him in 2013, so he’ll be here for at least two more years, likely three.
The answer for what the Mets should do with Reyes and Wright is as convoluted as the question itself. There is no quick fix or easy answer. Each option comes with its inherent risks, and the variables are too numerous to comprehensively consider each possible outcome. But my sense is that the team and the fans are both in favor of bringing back both guys for the long haul, because that is the popular — and by all accounts easier — move. There’s something to be said for staying with the devil you know when a despondent fan base is clinging desperately to its favorite sons and the alternative is having to stomach watching them suit up for the Yankees or Phillies. These players are a huge part of the fans’ identities — along with self-loathing and masochism — and they have a right to want them here for the entirety of their careers or close to it. And, aside from these weird emotional considerations, Reyes and Wright are also really good players when they’re healthy and on top of their games, which is better than can be said for a lot of guys the Mets have trotted out there since they debuted. There are far worse impulses a team could have than to commit to a pair of good players.
But I want to make the argument for parting company with one or both, because there is a practical argument to be made, and considering the Mets’ suddenly dire straits after years of deluding themselves into believing they were a win-now team (when, in fact, they weren’t) they could use a big dose of practicality. Already under the stewardship of an imprudent front office and saddled by a handful of bad contracts, the Mets are unlikely to contend within the next couple of years. Their complementary players are fringy, and ownership has indicated it’s unwilling to swim in the deep end of the free-agent pool anytime soon (Cliff Lee is apparently already off their radar this offseason), at least not until some of the bloated salaries are off the books, so I don’t see an infusion of premium free agents on the horizon. The farm is modestly stocked, but the few high-end prospects it does possess — Jenrry Mejia, Fernando Martinez, Wilmer Flores — are not necessarily ready to contribute immediately, each for his own reason. That could mean that Reyes and Wright may be well into their declines by the time the Mets are ready to compete again, and that’s probably an optimistic estimate depending on if and when there’s a front-office shakeup in the works. Johan Santana and Jason Bay are are owed a lot of money for a long time, and though neither is entirely cooked as a contributor, neither’s production warrants his compensation, either, and it will be difficult to assemble an efficient roster with those two albatrosses lingering. Mind you, these are serious organizational issues that exist irrespective of Reyes and Wright.
With specific respect to Reyes and Wright, youth is no longer in endless supply as it once seemed to be. Reyes will potentially be a free agent heading into his age 29 season, which might be too old for comfort for a player whose skill set is so closely tied to his speed. Speedsters age unpredictably, and Reyes has already shown a knack for getting hurt, having missed parts of four of his eight seasons in the bigs due to injury. Wright is slated to hit free agency heading into his age 31 season. The quality of his defense has always been a matter of contention (that doesn’t figure to improve with declined mobility), and Citi Field’s cavernous dimensions will be of little help considering he’s never had great raw power.
Look, the manner in which Reyes and Wright will age is anyone’s guess, and these are, admittedly, glass-half-empty musings. I’m as big a fan of both as anyone is, but my point is that neither is a sure thing. Either one could be a timeless wonder and maintain his prime form into his late 30s, but the Mets, as a baseball organization, need to face the very real possibility that the team may not be a winner for a while and that either player could wash out at age 32.
Whether the Mets will cash in on the little value left on their roster — i.e. Reyes and Wright — remains to be seen, buy my guess is that it’s unlikely because of ownership’s loath to rebuild and lose fans at the park. Not to mention, the long-term contracts for which they’re on the hook may actually preclude them from an all-out rebuild, even if they were so inclined. For instance, who’s taking Santana or Bay right now without the Mets eating a sizable chunk of cash?
What’s especially daunting here is that, with a few bad contracts already on the books, it will require profound foresight and the execution of a well-devised plan to successfully retain or part from Reyes and Wright, which is precisely what the organization has displayed it’s incapable of in recent years.