A few years ago, you could start an argument in New York by asking which team had the better left side of the infield: the Yankees with Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, or the Mets with David Wright and Jose Reyes?
Jeter versus Reyes, in particular, was a back-page tabloid battle.
No longer. Rodriguez (hip) is out for at least six months, Jeter is in a walking boot and Reyes is with the Toronto Blue Jays.
So when Wright took the podium Wednesday at the Opryland Hotel to formally announce his eight-year, $138-million (U.S.) contract extension – putting on a re-tooled Mets jersey and cap, a gesture usually reserved for a player joining a new team – he was, in some ways, the last man standing in the baseball capital of the world.
Looking on were his agents, brothers Sam and Seth Levinson, and all present agreed that the final days of Wright's negotiations were coloured by the recent dismantling of the Miami Marlins, which included Reyes being traded to the Blue Jays one year after signing a six-year, $106-million contract (with a $22-million option in 2018).
Wright had questions – pointed questions about Mets ownership, which he broached with general manager Sandy Alderson and chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon (son of majority owner Fred Wilpon).
The Wilpons' ownership of the team has been under scrutiny since a court-appointed trustee representing victims of Bernard L. Madoff's Ponzi scheme sued Fred Wilpon and co-owner Saul Katz for $1-billion, saying they had enriched themselves through the scheme. (Shares in the Mets were sold off, bought by acquaintances of the Wilpons, including Steven A. Cohen, whose hedge fund has a former employee being investigated for insider trading.)
The Mets, who make annual payments of $43.5-million toward Citi Field stadium debt (which cut into the revenue stream the Wilpons receive from cable channel SportsNet New York), have missed the playoffs for six years and were expected to lose $23-million in 2012.
Payroll is expected to be around $93-million in 2013, and while some relief is in store after pitcher Johan Santana's $24-million contract comes off the books after next season, the difficulty the team is having in deciding the fate of Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, who has a $5-million option in 2013, is telling.
"David wanted to make sure I was going to be around," Jeff Wilpon explained Wednesday, "and that nothing he was reading – that we were selling the team or going somewhere – was true. We aren't going anywhere."
Wright demanded a blanket no-trade clause, treating as a cautionary tale the Marlins' dismantling of their team one year after opening a new ballpark.
Baseball insiders say the 12-player deal between the Marlins and Blue Jays still hangs over the industry. The Tampa Bay Rays, already fighting a losing battle in a bid for a new ballpark, have seen skepticism rise after the actions of Marlins' ownership. Players have taken note, too. In recent years, teams have tried to shy away from no-trade clauses (the Jays do not offer them), but the Marlins sell-off has stoked the fires again.
"It's always been an issue when a player says 'I'm signing here,' and he has five different choices, three different choices or two different choices," said Seth Levinson, whose agency also represents recent Blue Jays' free-agent signee, Melky Cabrera. "There's always an element of 'If I'm signing here, it's because I want to commit here; I want to know I'll be here.'
"At the same time, the teams asks the player to invest in their charitable foundation and put down roots. I mean, you'd like some understanding that it's a two-way street. So, of course, that [Jays-Marlins] deal impacted people. It was kind of a running joke with Jeff and Sandy during David's negotiations that 'We're not going to end up with a Jose-Reyes-in-Toronto situation, are we?'"
So even though these meetings have reinforced the theory that Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos has likely already done most of his heavy lifting this winter – despite stubborn rumours linking Toronto to Dickey (seemingly based 100 per cent on the fact former Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi now works for the Mets) and the Opryland lobby being rampant with three-, four- and five-team trade conspiracies – his work is still having an impact.