After nine years with Mets, Reyes joins Marlins
New York unwilling to match Miami's contract offer for shortstop
DALLAS -- The phone call took place on Sunday morning, lighting fire to the notion that Jose Reyes might stay in New York. Though the Mets never even submitted an official contract offer for the free-agent shortstop, general manager Sandy Alderson had nonetheless made his intentions known. Reyes' agents told him that it would not be enough.
Rather than push back, the Mets watched later Sunday as the Marlins came to terms with Reyes on a six-year deal in excess of $100 million. A baseball source confirmed the deal on Sunday night. And so, one of the most dynamic players and fan favorites in franchise history joined forces with a National League East rival.
"I wouldn't say that we're happy," Alderson said, later admitting that Reyes "was the most important thing on our agenda."
The Mets entered this offseason with a preconceived notion of exactly how much money they were willing to spend on Reyes -- a fact they publicly admitted on several occasions. Once the Marlins exceeded that threshold, it precluded the Mets from re-signing their homegrown shortstop.
"You have to draw a line somewhere," Alderson said.
In the end, the Mets drew that line more cautiously than the Marlins. In an attempt to lure fans to their new retractable-roof stadium, Miami has been uncharacteristically aggressive with its dealings all offseason, reportedly agreeing with closer Heath Bell while also pursuing first baseman Albert Pujols and multiple starting pitchers. The Marlins did not balk at the injury history of Reyes, who has averaged just 98 games per season over the last three years.
Reyes, 28, played his first nine big league seasons in New York after the Mets signed him as an international free agent in 1999. Quickly developing into a fan favorite alongside homegrown third baseman David Wright, he helped ignite the Mets to within one game of the World Series in 2006. A native Dominican, Reyes also grew partial to New York, purchasing a home on Long Island and placing his children in school there.
But injuries, always a part of his history, began haunting Reyes more forcefully than ever in 2009. Chronic hamstring woes, multiple oblique strains and a hyperactive thyroid combined to vex the shortstop over his final three seasons as a Met, threatening to sap his value on the free-agent market.
Those health concerns, along with Reyes' desire for at least a six-year deal, forced the Mets to disregard emotion when considering their free-agent shortstop.
"As a practical matter, one always has to look at these situations and these types of contracts and recognize that it's great to be able to sign them and acquire or retain a player," said Alderson, who has spoken critically of long-term free-agent deals in the past. "But there's a substantial amount of risk associated with it."
It did not help Alderson's cause that the Mets plan to reduce payroll from roughly $120 million last April to less than $100 million by Opening Day -- a fact the GM attributed more to "significant" revenue losses than to ownership's ongoing litigation in the wake of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
"Bernie Madoff and his specter are always referenced in these situations," Alderson said. "I really don't think that Madoff has that much to do with this. But when a team loses $70 million irrespective of Bernie Madoff or anyone else, that's probably a bigger factor in our approach to this season and the next couple seasons than anything else."
No matter the cause, the result is the end of an era for the left side of an infield; with Reyes gone, the Mets will almost certainly proceed with Ruben Tejada as their starting shortstop. Known more for his glove than his bat, the 22-year-old Tejada hit .284 with a .360 on-base percentage last season, playing second base and starting regularly at shortstop when Reyes was injured.
"We don't expect him to be Jose Reyes," Alderson said of Tejada. "He'll be what he can be as a player, and from a team perspective, you make up for the loss of one player at a player with the other 24 players on the roster."
If there is a silver lining for the Mets, it is precisely that: they can now afford to spend more money on some sorely needed pitching help. Because the Mets already have more than $61 million committed to just six players, signing Reyes at more than $20 million annually would have severely handicapped Alderson's ability to import even one pitcher of note. But with Reyes gone, the Mets may be able to afford multiple relievers and at least one additional starter. That work begins in earnest this week at the Winter Meetings.
But even with a glut of valuable relievers available on the free-agent market, a difficult road lies ahead for the Mets, who share a division with two strong playoff contenders in Philadelphia and Atlanta and two aggressive spenders in Miami and Washington. With Reyes gone from a team that lost 85 games last year, simply staying afloat in the NL East could prove difficult.
Regardless, Alderson insisted Sunday night that the Mets are not in full-fledged rebuilding mode, vowing not to trade Wright just because Reyes is gone. Alderson understands the challenge as much as anyone, but, as he said, "stuff happens in baseball."
"Look, I'm not conceding anything with respect to 2012," Alderson said. "We're here [in Dallas] for the next four days to figure out how to put the best possible team on the field for 2012."