Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Remembering the Old, Rewarding the New
By Ben Valentine

If you’ve been following the New York Mets over the last week then you’ve no doubt noticed an interesting dichotomy as the team takes one last look back at their most recent glories as they move forward with their present success.

We start with the old, as I was lucky enough to be in attendance for Mike Piazza’s first game back at Shea since departing as a free agent this last off season.

For Mets fans, Piazza was the icon of the successes of the late nineties, the man who came oh so close to delivering the franchise’s first title since 1986. He also was the greatest player the Mets have had in their franchise since Darryl Strawberry was belting balls out into the right field bullpen. Furthermore, Piazza was the first Hall of Fame player the Mets had in his prime since the days of Tom Seaver. In fact, outside of Seaver, Piazza is the only one.

Before the start of this one, the Mets honored Piazza with a video tribute which has become oh so customary to do. The fans ate it up, myself included. No doubt they wanted to relive some of those home runs and see them one last time. For me, there are four I’ll always remember.

The fourth; the homer that capped the 10 run inning against the Braves. It was a regular season game, but it was an unlikely comeback against a hated division foe. The third, the shot he hit off Steve Karsay when baseball returned to New York after September 11th 2001. This one needs no explanation. The second was the lighting bolt he hit off Ramiro Mendoza in a Mets/Yankee game at Shea in 1999. It just rocketed off his bat so quickly even on TV you knew it was gone when he hit it. Hell, Piazza even flipped the bat, showing up Mendoza, something he never did to pitchers. But it was instinct and reflex, he knew he crushed it. And he had; it struck the tent behind the left field bullpen. When a power hitter is impressed by a shot of his, you know it’s something. And the first, as I’ve written about before, was the laser he hit when a less glorious Met returned to Shea in 2001, that the infamous Mike Hampton.

The ovation didn’t cease until the first pitch and started again when Piazza entered the on deck circle in the first inning. Some applause, like my own, might have been for Mike Cameron, who was returning to Shea as well, but most figured to be for Hall of Famer. They had to hold it in for a little while; Steve Trachsel somehow retired the side in order. But when the second inning rolled around, things exploded.

When Piazza stepped to the plate, he received the ovation he deserved. The stadium rose again clapping loudly throughout the at bat. Chats of his name could be heard throughout. As the camera panned to him as he walked into the batters’ box, one could almost see the smirk on his face. Even the always cool, collected and business like Piazza could not resist it in the midst of such fan appreciation. As I watched on that jumbo-tron screen, I couldn’t help but think;

“Come on Mikey, smile. You’ve earned that right.”

But business went on. Trachsel retired him, and did so throughout the game. Piazza would reach on a single before eventually being lifted in the 8th inning on a double switch. After his last AB, the crowd gave their hero one last standing ovation. I’m not sure one night of cheers and applause can sum up the way Piazza brought Mets fans to their feet over the years, but if it is in fact possible, then the fans certainly succeeded Tuesday night.

But while memories of the fun that was 99-00 are nice, the future is bright around the Mets as well. And it got even brighter this week when the team extended the contracts of David Wright and Jose Reyes past their first few years of free agency.

Many have criticized these moves for different reasons. Some believe the Mets are taking a big chance on Reyes, who is just a year and a half removed from serious leg issues and has just one season worth of success at the major league level. In Wright’s case the concerns are two fold; first that he received a much larger deal in the end than Reyes and that the Mets at the end of the deal committed 15 million to a guy who has had two years in the big leagues.

First with Reyes; the reality is that he would have to suffer multiple leg injuries that knocked him out for substantial stretches for him not to eventually get a deal like this down the road. In fact the Mets will likely get a bargain. Even if Reyes doesn’t get better from what he is now, a .300 hitter who steals 60 bases, gets 20 triples and 30 doubles a year with around 14-15 homers, as an above average defensive shortstop, the kid would make seven to ten million easily. But conventional wisdom says that at 23, he will improve, as does the fact he’s gotten better every season in the bigs. So if Reyes does become a 20 homer, 35 double, 20 triple guy with the ability to swipe 50 bases a year, that alone with get him 10 million. If his defense does become Gold Glove caliber as well, then we’re talking 15 million or more. Does that sound crazy to you? Well look at this guys’ age 23 season.

.291/.370/.405/.775, 10 Hr, 116 runs, 70 RBI, 23 SB, 31 2B, 7 3B

Now Reyes’ projected for the whole season:

.294/.350/.470/.820, 16 Hr, 135 runs, 76 RBI, 70 SB, 31 2B, 19 3B

Those who know me well can probably guess who that first player’s line is. I simply could not resist a comparison to Derek Jeter. The Yankees’ shortstop’s age 22 season was light years better than Reyes’ but Reyes looks to have the edge just a year later. This leads into the prior point; outside of 1999 and 2006, Jeter’s never posted an OPS above 900. If Reyes improves just slightly offensively, then he can be the player Jeter was for the vast majority of his career. If Jeter can turn that into a 190 million dollar contract, then the nine million or so the Mets will be handing Reyes at the end of the deal looks like chump change in comparison. Of course, should Reyes improve even further, then it will look, appropriately, like a steal. And even if Reyes does fall apart physically, then the Mets will be on the hook for a big payout at the very end of the deal. They can handle a one year loss in that case. All and all, it’s a risk that they could easily afford.

A similar situation exists for Wright, though his contract is even harder to question. In his first two and a half years in the bigs Wright has career splits of .305/.385/.547/.907. He’s 23 now and like Reyes, has improved every year he’s been up with the Mets. His improvement hasn’t been as drastic, but that’s because he already was a solid player when he got to the big leagues. As a result, it’s only fair Wright gets a larger contract than Reyes. While I believe Reyes will end up being the most valuable of the two, the Mets are paying extra for the certainty Wright provides them. He’s done it longer and doesn’t have the injury history Reyes has, thus he can make 15 million in the last year of the deal. Heck, if Wright was 26 and had put up these numbers the last two years heading into free agency he’d probably get 14-15 million on the market this year.

The other aspect which people seem to overlook because the Mets are a big market team is the financial certainty this provides them. Reyes would have been arbitration eligible after this season and Wright after the next. For those who don’t know, that’s when a player and a team both submit figures on what the player will be paid for the upcoming season. Should the sides not agree or compromise, the two sides head to an arbitrator and he (or she) decides who “wins” arbitration. The player is paid what the winning side offered. Now arbitration happens very late in the off season, so a large arbitration award can really mess up a team’s salary structure.

The Mets have greater room for this than the Royals, but they’re not the Yankees with seemingly unlimited funds. It’s a lot harder to throw 15 million at Barry Zito when you’re shortstop might end up making seven million the next year and your third baseman nine million the season after that. What if both in two years had surpassed the 10 million dollar range? The Mets simply could not say for sure what Wright and Reyes could cost in the upcoming years and that no doubt would hinder their spending in the future.

In locking them up, the Mets know for sure what the two will be on the books for. With the way the deals are structured as back loaded contracts, it allows the team to spend money in the next few years on free agents, while not having to worry about paying the duo big bucks until after Carlos Delgado, Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez are off the books. A solid move by GM Omar Minaya, one of his best of the season.

Tonight the Mets won 3-2 to spoil Mike Piazza’s return. The player of the game? David Wright, who scored the Mets’ first run and drove in the next two. Marquee Met of days past, meet the marquee Mets of the present and future as Jose Reyes singled while swiping two bags off the old backstop. And so, Tuesday night was symbolic of the change in the New York Mets, a change which can be summed up quite simply as;

Mike thanks for the memories. Met fans will never forget you.

David and Jose, Met fans can’t wait to see what heights you can take them to.


Blogger Mini Me said...

I like how the Mets are securing their nice young players for the future. Good job Omar!

1:30 PM  

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