Sunday, June 12, 2011

Keep Jose and Keep Hope Alive

Jose Reyes, the Mets shortstop is in the prime of his career, having just turned 28 years old, and he is having a spectacular season.  Reyes is currently leading the National League in batting average, hits and triples, is second in steals, and third in doubles.  His defense has also been stellar.

And beyond the numbers, he is -- and has long been -- the heart and soul of the team.  Since he first arrived in 2003, he has played with passion, joy and fire that has not only made him a delight to watch and root for, but often has carried a team that has otherwise lacked those qualities.  The Mets have been a pretty miserable team since their devastating playoff loss in 2006, but that hasn't been because of Jose. 

This year, as George Vecsey recently wrote in the New York Times, Reyes has "crystallized into the player the organization always envisioned."  And he is only 28!  But he will be a free agent at the end of the year and there have been rumors that the Mets will either trade him before the end of the season or not resign him for the big money he deserves. 

The Mets have been notorious throughout their history for making stunningly bad trades; sending away players who became stars with other teams (Nolan Ryan, Amos Otis, Jeff Kent) and signing once great players who flail when they come to New York (George Foster, Bobby Bonilla, Roberto Alomar,  Mo Vaughn).  In the last few years they have ill-advisedly given huge contracts to players who were wholly undeserving.  (Oliver Perez, Luis Castillo, Jason Bay.)

Here they have a bona fide superstar, an exciting fan favorite at the peak of his career, and the fact that there has been serious debate about whether the Mets should keep him is a sad commentary on baseball and, particularly, on the Mets franchise.

Baseball economics dictate that players should be traded when they are at peak value, when their team can get the best price for them in terms of other players.  With the Mets once again not a contending team this year, a piece in the Wall Street Journal explains that "the better Reyes plays, the more expensive he likely will be to re-sign, and the more value he figures to command on the July trade market. As a result, it becomes harder for the Mets to hold onto him."  

After this season Reyes is likely to sign a multi-year contract in the neighborhood of $100 million. (Last year Carl Crawford (Red Sox), Cliff Lee (Phillies) and remarkably, Jayson Werth (Nationals) signed contracts for over $100 million.)  But there was Met owner Fred Wilpon in The New Yorker quoted as saying that Reyes doesn't deserve that kind of money.  Wilpon, unfairly exaggerating Reyes' history of injuries spewed, “He’s had everything wrong with him.  He won’t get it.”  (2009 was the only year since Reyes began playing regularly in 2005 that was completely lost to injuries.  He also missed about about 30 games last year.)

As has been well-publicized, the Mets ownership is deeply entangled in the Bernie Madoff scandal.  So Wilpon has good reason for being squeamish about making any more huge investments.  And because of Madoff, the Wilpons may not have the payroll flexibility to sign Reyes to the long-term deal he could earn elsewhere, although hopefully this will be mitigated by the sale of a minority stake in the team to hedge-fund manager David Einhorn.

Letting Reyes go might be a wise business decision but a poor baseball one.  As Nate Silver recently wrote,  many Met fans have lost faith in their team as reflected in declining attendance at Citi Field.  This should not come as a surprise after years of disappointment on the field followed by the Madoff revelations off it.  Trading Reyes will run the risk of alienating Met fans even further, including the die-hards who do show up at the games and who have begun chanting "keep Jose, keep Jose."

The Mets have been a little more fun to watch lately.  Some of their younger players, who are getting a chance to play due to injuries to key players such as David Wright, Ike Davis and Johan Santana, are showing some spunk.  But as Vescey asks, "what kind of future is it without Jose Reyes?"  Indeed, he "gives the Mets hope."  And at this point, that's pretty much all we've got.


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