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The Reyes Test

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But which team’s jersey will he be wearing? It is the Mets’ profoundly rotten luck that once they finally get Reyes healthy and stroking like they’ve needed him to for four years, the rest of the team has fallen lame all around him. The Mets’ new general manager, Sandy Alderson, and his gang are facing quite a pickle. It is one thing to clear out dead weight and build for the future. It is another thing altogether to trade away the team’s most popular, likable player while he’s having a career year and is only 27 years old.

The Mets have two options. Neither of them is ideal. Or both are. The first is to hang on to Reyes, ride it out, and take their chances that he will re-sign with the team in the off-season. From all reports, Reyes, a non-flashy guy who lives with his wife and three children in Manhasset, prefers to stay in a situation he finds comfortable; keeping him this season makes it more likely he’ll give favored-nation status to the Mets. (The team would have an exclusive negotiating window with Reyes after the season ends, as well as the goodwill of letting Reyes know he’s wanted.) Keeping Reyes throughout 2011 would give fans a reason to continue to come to Citi Field throughout September, when the Mets will have been long out of the playoffs, and they might even sell some more of their most popular jersey, too.

The other option is to trade him to a league full of teams starving for him. The most likely suitors are the defending World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants, who desperately need a shortstop and a leadoff man; with Reyes, they’d be getting one of the best in both capacities. (Other potential trade partners are the Cardinals, the Angels, and the Reds. Derek Jeter isn’t playing badly enough yet for the Yankees to get involved, mercifully.) There’s a strong argument to be made for shipping Reyes out before it’s too late, before the price goes down or, perish the thought, he gets hurt again.

If the Mets truly are rebuilding and reconstituting their entire organization, isn’t Reyes exactly the type of player you flip for young prospects? He’s at the end of his contract, he’s injury-prone, he’s reliant on his speed for much of his value (speed that, as he gets older, will fade), and he fits an obvious need for a series of highly motivated trade partners. The Giants have a trove of young prospects—the Mets should be eyeing outfielder/first-baseman Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford, just for starters—which the Mets need now more than anything else; they don’t have many top-tier prospects left in their system and arguably haven’t produced one since, well, Reyes. (You can make a case for Ike Davis if you’d like.)

There’s a catch there, too: If you want the mother lode of prospects from the Giants (or whomever), you’ll have to let them negotiate a contract extension with Reyes in order to get them to give up that much. If you trade Reyes as more of a rental—as he would be with St. Louis—you’ll receive less in return … which makes trading him seem beside the point. (Alderson has admitted that a trade of Reyes would be an admission that he is unlikely to re-sign.)

Then again, what are you keeping him around for? Are these Mets winning a championship in the next five years, Reyes’s prime? With finances the way they are, can they even afford to sign him in the off-season? (Particularly when he might command numbers similar to what Carl Crawford signed for with the Red Sox: seven years, $142 million.) What if he gets hurt again?

But do the Mets want to be the sort of franchise that trades away its best players in their prime because of financial concerns? What are we, Minnesota?

It is an impossible situation to resolve: Both sides of the Trade Reyes debate are correct, and prudent, and convincing. But the Mets have to make a decision. In a season in which it has felt like management is just idling and biding its time, this is the first and perhaps most important decision of the new regime. I’m glad I’m not the one who has to make it. We’re going to learn a lot, perhaps all we need to know, about Alderson & Co. by which direction they take. If they keep Reyes, they show that they’re willing to risk part of their future to keep fans happy and build around a fragile superstar. If they trade him, they show that they’re willing to trade anyone, regardless of sentiment, to fix this franchise in the long term.

And yet whichever path they choose, as any die-hard Mets fan knows, will probably be the wrong one.

E-mail: will.leitch@nymag.com.


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