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mets countdown

Mets Countdown No. 1: Jose Reyes

The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Mets players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 1, shortstop Jose Reyes.

Do you realize that Jose Reyes could be a free agent after this season? The Mets have an $11 million option to pick up on Reyes, which is a bargain if he's is in the lineup and healthy ... which obviously is far from a certainty. (Though not nearly as much of a bargain as the $23.25 million they've paid him over the last four years.) While we've spent the last year waiting for Reyes to come back and unleash that wild, crazy, euphoric energy that made this Mets team look like the most exciting thing to come around the city in a while ... his clock has slowly been ticking toward free agency, and baseball middle age.

Reyes is only 27, sure; this is what happens when you break into the bigs at 20. (It's funny to think he once played second base to make room for Kaz Matsui.) But Reyes, suddenly, is on the verge of a contract year. He can make himself quite a bit of money over the next few years if he comes back and resembles the old Reyes this season. And he can turn the Mets from the dreary pond of pain they've been lately into something special. He is the one player the Mets absolutely cannot survive without. He transforms them: Everything at Citi Field just feels more gray when he's not in the lineup.

Reyes is on the DL now, but he could be back as early as April 10. In the wake of his 36 games last year, what can we expect from him? Baseball Prospectus projects: a .294, twelve homers, 93 runs, 59 RBI, and 45 steals. Those runs and RBI are probably a bit skewed — remember, Jerry Manuel plans on batting him third — but that's a reasonable projection. It's not an all-star projection, though: The Reyes we know and love could be an MVP candidate at some point. The Mets can become something incredible if Reyes is 100 percent back. Or they can collapse again if he's gone. Jose Reyes is one of those few players who sends a spark through the stadium when he's at bat, or on the bases, or diving around the field. The Mets need wins, sure. But more than anything, they need some energy. They need a reason to be. Jose Reyes can be that reason — if he can just get on the field.

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Photo: Jeff Gross/Getty Images