Alderson: Re-signing Reyes is top priority
Free-agent star shortstop may be out of Mets' price range
NEW YORK -- Sandy Alderson sat Thursday afternoon on a clubhouse couch at Citi Field, flanked by two Mets pillows and a wall of packing boxes. Over his right shoulder stood an empty locker with the name "REYES" still tagged above it.
The juxtaposition made silent reference to the Mets' most critical offseason decisions in years. Alderson, the general manager, has not been shy in admitting that nothing this winter will be more significant to the franchise than re-signing star shortstop Jose Reyes -- or opting not to.
"It's not vexing," Alderson said. "It's not troublesome. I know that that's the job at hand. We have to deal with it and we have to try to do so in the best interest of the Mets."
Half a day after officially winning the National League batting title, thereby carving deeper his niche in franchise history, Reyes remained as topical as any playoff race. Free agency does not often see players of his age, caliber, skill set and injury history hit its ranks, making the pursuit of Reyes both uncommonly intriguing and potentially treacherous.
Internally, the Mets have already penciled out a tentative salary range and "choking point" for contract negotiations. But Alderson alluded Thursday that things may "become emotional" in the pursuit of one of the franchise's all-time fan-favorite players.
"I've enjoyed watching Jose play," Alderson said. "He was a big part of whatever success we had."
In a perfect world, the renewal of vows would already be complete. The Mets have said that they want Reyes back. Reyes has said that he wants to return. And yet dollars, cents and sense may make the process far more complicated than it needs to be -- as well as potentially prohibitive. If another team offers Reyes more money than the Mets do, it could mean the end.
And that is a real possibility. Though a federal judge this week dismissed all but two counts of a lawsuit against the team's ownership group, Sterling Equities, principal owner Fred Wilpon and partner Saul Katz could still be on the hook for more than $1 billion. That, in turn, may affect a payroll that Alderson expects to sit somewhere between $100-110 million.
Roughly half that money is already committed to just three players: Johan Santana, Jason Bay and David Wright. Significant also are potential arbitration raises for Mike Pelfrey and Angel Pagan.
On the latter front, Alderson remained noncommittal Thursday when asked if Pagan will start in center field next season. Coming off a disappointing year both offensively and defensively, Pagan could become a victim of the payroll crunch -- especially if the Mets decide to re-sign Reyes, who may command upward of $20 million per season.
"Adding Jose would ... create less flexibility for us than we would like to have," Alderson said. "But there are pluses and minuses to every situation. We just have to weigh those."
The pluses and minuses of Reyes are obvious. At age 28, he ranks among the game's most dynamic players, capable of hitting for average and modest power, stealing bases and playing adequate defense. He also qualifies as one of baseball's most significant injury risks, given his lengthy history of muscle tweaks over the past three years alone.
Bidders must examine the entire package. The Mets understand that better than anyone.
"We were fortunate to experience an outstanding year from Jose," Alderson said. "There's obviously uncertainty about where he'll be next year, but we will see where that takes us. At the same time, it was great to be able to watch him play unfettered for half the year, and even with some limitation in the second half."
And so the team's offseason agenda reads like a Citi Field chant: "Jose, Jose, Jose, Jose." Everything the Mets do this winter, to some extent, will hinge upon Reyes. Improving the bullpen through free agency, for example, will depend upon how much money the Mets allocate to their shortstop. Evaluating the medical and training staffs will mean delving into the details of Reyes' injury history.
Alderson also plans to examine the free agent's body of work -- both this season and deep into the past. He is quick to note that at this point in the process, everything remains "speculation."
That is because the 2011 season is not yet complete. Eight teams are still alive following one of the most entertaining nights in recent baseball memory. The Mets are not among them.
And that, Alderson underscored, is a regret.
"I think one of the disappointments for me was we started poorly and we ended poorly," Alderson said. "First impressions are important. Last impressions are important. I think we did a lot of good things between those two bookends, but I think the poor start and the difficult finish may obscure some of that."