Jose Reyes signed with the Miami Marlins (Florida Marlins? Miami Marlins of Florida? ) a good couple of weeks ago now. It’s taken me that long to process exactly what happened. What happened is that massive an event in Mets history. It’s nowhere near Tom Seaver to the Reds for Pat Zachary, Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn, and Dan Norman. It doesn’t quite reach the level of Daryl Strawberry defecting to the Dodgers after the 1990 season. Jose Reyes, for all his accomplishments and prodigious talent, was never part of a World Series winner with the Mets and was never considered the undisputed king of his profession for more than a season. But to deny that his departure is a seismic event in the history of this franchise is impossible. What exactly it does mean for this franchise right now and what it will mean in the future is a tough assignment. The answers to those questions should be more than what glib sportswriters and emotionally overwrought fans have seen fit to give: some combination of “they’ll be awful for years to come,” “they’re working with a Kansas City Royals budget and always will from now on either because Sandy Alderson is an idiot or because Bernie Madoff bankrupted them”, “they betrayed the fans because they were never really going to re-sign Reyes”, and of course the old standby, “the Wilpons should be taken out and shot.” All of those reactions are gross oversimplifications of something that was too much of a watershed moment in the ongoing story of the New York Mets to be so easily dismissed. Since the departure of Jose Reyes has complicated ramifications, I’m going to try and tackle it in parts. It’s only just now that I think I can.
1. Well sure, of course Reyes leaving the Mets is miserable.
A few sentences ago, I said that Reyes leaving the Mets doesn’t measure up to Seaver leaving the Mets or even Daryl Strawberry leaving the Mets because Reyes doesn’t wear a World Series ring with the word “Mets” engraved on it. In a way that’s the toughest part about his exit: he should have a World Series ring with the word Mets engraved on it. We all figured he would have one by now and even if we didn’t we figured he probably would get one somewhere down the road. When we first saw Reyes and David Wright together, we saw the position player equivalent of Seaver and Koosman. We saw two young homegrown players who had talent coming out of their ears and each had a personality to match, who were likable and energetic, who were all ours and were going to remain all ours for all their playing days. I had visions of 7 and 5 taking their rightful place along side 37, 14, 41, and 42. I imagined me watching the numbers being hoisted, sitting next to my sons who would have grown up with Reyes and Wright as identifiable with the Mets as orange and blue. At the ceremony, Jose and David would each tell stories that would take us back to that glorious year they spent leading the Mets to a third world championship– at least a third. As of the end of the 2011 season, with injuries and called third strikes and 7 games with 17 to play all serving as wrenches in the works on the way to that golden day in the future, it still wasn’t impossible for them to still accomplish some part of what we thought they would together.
It’s impossible now. Reyes is a Marlin.
Jose Reyes and David Wright were supposed to be the core of a championship that was supposed to have been won during the Omar Minaya era. At 28, they’re both young enough that they could still have been the core of a championship team under the Sandy Alderson regime. Reyes wasn’t a high-priced aging underperforming veteran. This is the reigning National League batting champion, one of the best defensive shortstops inthe game, and when he’s right, the most exciting player in baseball. There’s simply no way that losing him does anything but make a 77-85 team worse. Sandy Alderson did everything a GM has to do in a situation like this. He said that he was not conceding the 2012 season, he praised the players that were still on the roster, he expressed confidence in new shortstop Ruben Tejada. But he knows as well as we do that this losing Jose Reyes is a step back.
2. As miserable as it is to lose Reyes, it still had to happen.
Not only did losing Reyes have to happen, but it had to happen utterly regardless of Bernie Madoff and reduced payrolls and bridge loans.
Sandy Alderson is a veteran GM who has built winners before. He’s obviously smart enough to know that losing Jose Reyes to free agency does not make them better. So when he says he was genuinely interested in retaining him, you know that it’s true (even if they didn’t feel the need to make Jose feel “wanted” by wining and dining him like a first date the way the Marlins did). He’s also smart enough to know that virtually no one is worth retaining at any price. He has only to look at his own team’s roster over the last couple of years, at Jason Bay, at Luis Castillo, at Oliver Perez, and to a lesser extent at Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana, virtually all of whom seemed like safe bets when they were signed to their various contracts, to know the danger of long contracts for large money. Jose Reyes could very easily have become another one. If the Mets were willing to top the six years and $106 million the Marlins gave Reyes, you can be sure the Marlins would’ve topped whatever that offer might have been. A bidding war can only lead to giving someone, even someone as good as Reyes, a contract with way more money and years than is sensible. The Mets might have kept Reyes, but what if they had kept him with a contract of say, eight years and $160 million? What if that’s what it took? How good would that deal look when Reyes is 36 and getting $20 million dollars and still trying to make a living with his oft-injured legs?
Bidding wars never make sense for a club, and it doesn’t matter if their paryoll is $50 million or $150 million. The best you can do is essentially what Sandy Alderson did. Make an offer that’s reasonable in terms of years and money. You don’t try to nickel-and-dime the player, but you make the best offer you reasonably can and hope the player takes it and if he doesn’t, take the draft picks. I figured something along the lines of five years and $100 million ought to be just about right for Reyes. Alderson offered something right around that. If someone was willing to top the dollars or the years, Alderson was prepared to lose out. Better that than winding up with an insane contract that chances are good will become a stumbling block at some point. Someone was prepared to top it. Very well. It’s tough one to swallow, but very well. Virtually no one is worth going to the wall for; Jose Reyes isn’t and if he isn’t, who is?
3. It wasn’t all spin– the Mets aren’t hopeless in the short-term or the long term.
Panicky, pessimistic Mets’ fans have leaped, almost eagerly, to the conclusion that with Reyes’ defection, the Mets have now entered a new version of the post-Seaver 70s. In the post-Seaver 70s, there was no one competent running the front office and the likes of Gooden, Darling, Strawberry, and Dykstra were far from being on the horizon. In this scenario, the Frank Cashen character is already on stage, played by Sandy Alderson. It would of course be crazy to compare anyone in the Mets’ farm system to Gooden and Darling et. al, but it’s not going too far to say that the prospects who are there represent potential help on the way. Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jeurys Familia, and at more of a stretch Jenrry Mejia and Brandon Nimmo are all legitimate reasons to be optimistic about the future. Ike Davis, Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Dillon Gee, and Jon Niese are all reasons to be at least a little optimistic about the present. As tough as it is to lose Reyes, he really only represents a loss to the offense, a relative strength for the Mets last year. The team’s most glaring weakness was its bullpen and Alderson addressed that weakness in spades by acquiring Frank Francisco, Ramon Ramirez, and Jon Rauch– like most bullpen arms, gambles, but fairly good gambles as these things go. Last year, the Mets’ bullpen blew fully 24 saves. If this year’s bullpen can reduce that number by half or even one quarter, it would be a huge help.
There may yet be more help coming. Niese has figured prominently in several trade rumors and appears to be a sought-after commodity. Bobby Parnell’s intriguingly electric right arm has suddenly become a potentially attractive trading commodity. Daniel Murphy could be a pivotal member of the starting lineup, but everything about him cries out “DH”. Will they bring anyone who will instantly turn the Mets into a contender? Probably not. But there is enough there as it is to make .500 or even above a possibility. If a lot of questions surrounding them are answered in the positive (Santana is something resembling his old self, Ike Davis plays in upwards of 150 games, Gee, Niese, and Duda and company continue to progress), they could even see a little more success than that.
4. Sandy Alderson, this is your life.
Well, your career and your reputation anyway. Losing Jose Reyes is without doubt a blow, yet I remain optimistic. Virtually all of that optimism is rooted in Sandy Alderson’s resume. This is the man who built one of the last pre-Yankee dynasties, the A’s of the late 80s and early 90s. This is also the godfather of Moneyball, the guy who taught Billy Beane everything he knows. Everything about Sandy Alderson says that everything from Jose Reyes to losing $70 million in one season can all be overcome, that it will be just part of the story to tell down the road. While the team on the field is far from an All-Star team, the team in the front-office is supposed to be as good as it gets. They need to earn their money, especially now that someone else will be signing Jose Reyes’ paychecks. There doesn’t necessarily need to be a big blockbuster deal tomorrow. There does need to be scouting, player development, more of the likes of Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler coming through the minors. There does need to be more than just a sense that the Mets are getting better, however slowly, and that it’s happening from the ground up, leading to sustained contention happening year-in year-out. It needs to actually happen. Sandy Alderson, Paul DePodesta, J.P. Riccardi and the rest of this baseball equivalent to the Best and the Brightest are just the guys to do it. Or at least they’re supposed to be. Mets’ fans need to see them working their magic, even if it’s slow magic. We can wait for slow magic to take effect– provided it really does take effect.
This front office has bet Jose Reyes, and their reputations as architects of long-term baseball execellence, that their way will pay off. We’ll all be watching.
5. Jose Reyes and the Marlins will both live to regret this.
Teams have spent big and fast all at once for championships before and had it pay off. The Marlins could very well prove to be yet another team that makes that method work.
They had better or within two years or Jose Reyes, Mark Buherle, and Heath Bell will all be traded for prospects while we hear some claptrap from the Marlins’ front office about “market correction”. It’s happened twice before with the Marlins: win it all then within a year to two years start dismantling your championship team because all of a sudden you realize you can’t afford the players anymore. It’s not unreasonable to figure it will happen again.
But it’s different this time, the Marlins will argue. We have a shiny new stadium bringing us all that new revenue!
What kept the Marlins from making enough money to hang on to their maquee players from 1997 and 2003 wasn’t Joe Robbie/Pro Player/Sun Life/Dolphin/Whatever Stadium. The problem is that regular-season Major League baseball has always been and will always be difficult to sustain in Florida. A World Series team shouldn’t have any trouble getting people to come see it play no matter what the stadium is like. The Marlins World Series teams did. Analyzing the reasons why is another story for another time although the unpredictability of the weather and the presence of so many transplants in Florida who have loyalties to the teams they left behind are what spring to mind for me. History seems to suggest the Marlins need to at least be in the World Series every year just to keep the fans just interested enough to bring in the money that filling any ballpark, no matter how grand or how garish, will bring your team. If Jose Reyes and the rest of the big-ticket items on Jeffrey Loria’s shopping list from this holiday season want to stay in Miami for any length of time, they’d better start winning right away and they’d better not stop. Reyes’ fragile hamstrings and Mark Buherle getting older are among the factors that could make that difficult. The Phillies and Braves are among the factors that will make it difficult. It’s not all that outlandish to imagine Jose Reyes returning to the Mets in couple of years for a package of prospects. It’s happened before. Now on top of everything throw the potential trouble the ongoing SEC investigation of the Marlins would bring.
Win now Marlins. Win right now. And if you want to stay Marlins, don’t stop winning for a second.
Jose Reyes could come to regret signing with the Marlins if the Marlins ambitious plans blow up in their faces. Even if they don’t, he’ll still come to regret it at least a little for the same reason we’re regretting it as fans: he won’t win a World Series with the Mets. Maybe he was never going to, but if he had, he would’ve lived forever. If he wins one with the Marlins, he’ll be remembered for a long time too– at least until he’s dispensed with in the next fire sale.
Yes, winning a World Series is great no matter where you do it. As great as it is anywhere, it’s something else again in New York, and it’s something else yet again in Queens where so few have been won that those who have even the tiniest bit to do with it are memorialized as legends (or does everyone know who Bobby Pfeil is, not just me?). It would’ve been nice for Jose Reyes to take his place in the pantheon with everyone from Agee to Orosco. It won’t happen and that’s really too bad. It doesn’t have to be fatal for the Mets, at least not long-term. It may work out for Reyes himself. But there’s a chance it won’t. Either way, his life in baseball won’t be it might have been. Again, too bad.