David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Sandy Alderson made his first public appearance Thursday since the Mets revealed a month ago that their general manager is battling cancer, and that spoke to the significance of Mike Piazza’s election to the Hall of Fame.
Alderson sat with chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon and assistant GM John Ricco, two rows in front of the elevated dais where Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. eventually slipped on Hall of Fame jerseys for the photo op.
“We’re going to give you both lifetime contracts,” Hall president Jeff Idelson said. “You’re not going anywhere.”StoryPiazza will wear Mets cap in CooperstownInteractiveMLB Hall of Fame 2017: Who is worthy?ColumnLennon: Piazza should have made Hall sooner
Then, after pausing for a moment, Idelson added, “Sandy, I’m sorry. You can’t have him.”
Alderson laughed, though it wasn’t immediately clear whom Idelson was referring to. Given that the Mets currently have Juan Lagares patrolling centerfield, Griffey is the better fit. He’d probably be an upgrade if he showed up in Port St. Lucie five weeks from now.
As for Piazza, he serves as a reminder of a different time in Mets history, one in which they aggressively pursued the best, most expensive talent — and often acquired those players.
The Mets not only traded for Piazza in 1998 but later signed him to what then was the richest contract in baseball history: $91 million for seven years.
That figure seems laughable now. A paltry $13-million average annual value? The Nationals nearly paid that in a three-year deal for Daniel Murphy.
It’s all relative, of course, given inflation and baseball’s skyrocketing salaries during that span. But the Mets got their rock star when they went after Piazza, their game-changer in the middle of the order. And this winter, coming off a World Series appearance, the front office finds itself explaining why the club won’t do so again.
With the Mets having distanced themselves from Yoenis Cespedes since early December, Thursday also was the first time Alderson had the chance to address that situation. While he has kept a lower profile since beginning his cancer treatments, Alderson sounded as if he’s well aware of the drumbeat for re-signing Cespedes, who still seems very much available.
“Look, we know that Cespedes was instrumental to us getting to the postseason,” Alderson said. “We know Daniel Murphy was instrumental in us getting to the World Series. But I think along the way we learned a few things about ourselves, about the team, and I think the way we approached the offseason, we put some of those lessons into play. It’s not as if we’re not looking to improve the team, and if possible, in significant ways. But it has to make some sense in terms of how these pieces all fit.”
In talking with Mets officials Thursday, we got the sense that the team remains in a wait-and-see mode regarding where the prices go for some of the remaining free agents.
Obviously, the Mets haven’t been willing to be market-setters for quite a while now. But they were active in trying to improve the middle infield with the acquisitions of Neil Walker and Asdrubal Cabrera, two solid if unspectacular pieces meant to make up for losing Ben Zobrist to the Cubs.
At this point, signing Alejandro De Aza seems to have accomplished little more than to make the fan base even angrier about dismissing Cespedes. But Alderson refused to apologize for sticking to the plan, content with having Cespedes for what he was for the Mets — a three-month rental, at the right time, at the right price. Alderson also estimated that the Mets’ payroll this season will be about $115 million, which he cited as a $35-million bump from two years ago.
“So the idea that we’re not investing in the team I think is really misplaced,” Alderson said. “And sort of tied up in the populism involving Cespedes.”
For anyone wondering why the Mets bailed on Denard Span to pair with Lagares, they got their answer Thursday when he signed a three-year, $31-million contract with the Giants.
Will using cost-efficient players to patch holes work for the Mets the way it did last year before they went for it at the deadline?
It’s too early to know. But despite the festivities planned, Piazza can carry them only so far.