NEW YORK — He’s a homegrown star having a huge season in the media capital of the world. He’s a few days shy of his 28th birthday, just now entering the prime of his career.
And by the middle of the summer, Jose Reyes could be gone. In a New York minute.
Facing a US$1 billion lawsuit because of their business with Bernard Madoff, the cash-strapped owners of the New York Mets have another dilemma on deck: what to do about Reyes?
The speedy shortstop is hitting .333 and can become a free agent after the season, so it’s possible his price goes up with every triple toward the gap and headfirst dive into third.
“There’s days he’s the best player in baseball,” Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “His skill set can be off the charts. It’s electric.”
That puts new Mets general manager Sandy Alderson in a pickle.
Trade a popular player for minor league prospects and you anger an already-frustrated fan base. Hold out hope you can afford to re-sign Reyes and risk losing him for nothing more than a pair of draft picks as compensation.
It’s a predicament that small-market teams in Cleveland, Oakland and Florida face all the time. But in New York, baseball fans want their rebuilding projects limited to the Long Island Expressway.
Have patience, huh? Go sell that to someone in Kansas City, not in a city where the Yankees are the biggest spenders of all. Pay up and put a winner on the field, pal.
“This is an ongoing process and one that we’re continuing to evaluate, and a variety of different considerations are in play,” said Alderson, making sure not to tip his pitches. “At some point these will all converge.”
Smart, analytical, experienced and levelheaded, Alderson was hired in October and might be just the right man to entrust with such a decision. But in baseball terms, the Mets only manage this game for the next two months. After the July 31 trade deadline, it gets tricky.
On the diamond, Reyes is doing everything he can to keep the club respectable and prove he’s worthy of a lucrative, long-term commitment. He’s also a box-office draw at Citi Field — where attendance has dwindled while ownership is counting every dollar.
The switch-hitting leadoff man is leading the majors with eight triples and ranks among the NL leaders in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, steals and total bases. He was back in the starting lineup Thursday after a three-day stint on the bereavement list following his grandmother’s death, and helped the Mets to a 9-8 comeback win over Pittsburgh.
“He is obviously the complete package. I mean, he’s an offensive player who can turn the game around with his feet. On the defensive side, he can make a huge difference,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “Maybe the best throwing arm I’ve seen from shortstop. He can make all the plays. He’s got the quickness, he’s got great hands. He’s daring. He’s not afraid to make a tough play. So, we don’t sit anywhere close to where we are right now without him.”
Indeed, the combination of tools and talents that Reyes possesses is rare. His game is tailored perfectly to cavernous Citi Field, with its wide gaps and expansive outfield. Plus, he’s an exuberant player who gets his uniform dirty and brings boundless energy to the ballpark nearly every night.
That last trait can be good as gold to a big league team grinding out 162 games per season, with few days off.
“I know there’s a lot of rumours out there that the team’s going to trade me and stuff like that,” Reyes said Sunday. “I don’t put that kind of stuff in my mind. If I put that stuff in my mind, I’m not going to perform the way that I want to on the field. So that’s why I put it on the side.”
He has his shortcomings, too. Reyes is a free-swinger who still tends to make mental mistakes on the bases, and his animated antics have rankled opponents in the past. He also has a history of leg injuries that limited him to 53 games in 2004 and 36 in 2009.
That led Fred Wilpon to say this about Reyes in a recent profile of the embattled Mets owner in The New Yorker: “He thinks he’s going to get Carl Crawford money. He’s had everything wrong with him. He won’t get it.”
Crawford, of course, signed a US$142-million, seven-year deal with the Boston Red Sox last winter. Whether Reyes scores that kind of contract remains to be seen, but he has comparable skills and some of their career numbers are strikingly similar.
For example, Reyes has a .774 OPS. Crawford, almost two years older, was at .775.
“People say when you’re 27, 28, that’s when you’re starting to put it together,” said Reyes, a three-time all-star who played at least 153 games every season from 2005-08. “I can be better, no doubt.”
The first thing the fourth-place Mets must figure out is whether they could even come up with enough cash to re-sign Reyes, who has spent his entire pro career in blue and orange from the time he was 16 years old.
The club’s ownership group is being sued by the court trustee seeking to recover money for victims of the Madoff Ponzi scheme, and it’s unclear how long it will take for the case to play out.
Wilpon told Sports Illustrated last week his team is “bleeding cash” and could lose up to $70 million this year. Reducing the payroll for 2012 seems likely.
Hedge fund manager David Einhorn has agreed to buy a minority stake in the team for $200 million, and the deal is expected to be completed by the end of June.
But is that influx of money — and a handful of bloated player contracts coming off the books next season — enough to make the Mets legitimate contenders to retain Reyes?
If so, how much is he worth to them? Some think Alderson and his “Moneyball” lieutenants prefer to avoid large contracts and won’t place such a premium on Reyes because his career on-base percentage is only .338.
“I think that angle is overdone,” Alderson said. “I mean, do I value on-base percentage? Sure. But at the same time you have to take everything into account, not just one element.”
If they’re not willing to go for broke with Reyes, for whichever reason, the Mets may look to trade him for a much-needed infusion of young talent.
And whether he becomes available in July or November, several teams could be salivating over his services. Some of them with deep pockets and fertile farm systems, too.
Hey, those World Series champions in San Francisco could use a shortstop. So could Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee. Imagine him at the top of Boston’s powerful lineup. Perhaps replacing Jimmy Rollins next year for rival Philadelphia.
Or, dare to say it, displacing Derek Jeter across town.
One thing is certain: Reyes isn’t the only Mets star who might be on the trading block.
Carlos Beltran is in the final year of his contract and closer Francisco Rodriguez has a $17.5-million club option for 2012 that becomes guaranteed if he finishes 55 games this season. There’s even been talk about dealing the face of the franchise, David Wright, though he is signed beyond this year.
A fire sale in the city that never sleeps?
Might just make ’em smile in San Diego.