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 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 $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 .336 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.
“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, he’s 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 nine triples and ranks among the N.L. leaders in batting average, runs, hits, doubles, steals and total bases.
“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.
“I know there’s a lot of rumors out there that the team’s going to trade me and stuff like that,” Reyes said. “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 signed a $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.