David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Here in the Music City, the Mets’ soundtrack to these winter meetings is the non-stop drumbeat for Ben Zobrist, the super-utility free agent expected to choose a team before the circus leaves his hometown on Thursday.
The indications are good that his next stop is likely to be Flushing, as the Mets are willing to offer him a critical fourth year for a contract that is likely to eclipse $60 million, along with the opportunity to be their regular second baseman, which is Zobrist’s preferred position.
Furthermore, the team’s chief operating officer, Jeff Wilpon, arrived Monday at the Opryland hotel, another sign that an agreement probably is imminent. In years past, Wilpon has parachuted in to close similar deals. After all, he’s the one writing the checks.VoteSwing or take: Mets and potential free agents
But after showing Zobrist all this love, as well as the city’s leafy suburbs, what if the Mets don’t get him?
While other teams are willing to shrug off their top free-agent target for a pricey Plan B, we’ve been led to believe it’s Zobrist or bust for the Mets despite a free-agent pool that remains stocked with run-producing bats.
Incredibly, a 34-year-old utility player, as coveted as Zobrist may be in that role, seems to be holding up a market that still includes Jason Heyward, Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon, to name a few. Not one of those players appears to be an option for the Mets, however. And the one who potentially could be, Cespedes, already was pretty much ruled out publicly Sunday night by assistant GM John Ricco, who is filling in for Sandy Alderson at the winter meetings.
The reason is obvious. All of those free agents are headed north of $100 million, with longer-term deals, and Alderson’s Mets don’t play that game. The notable exception, of course, is David Wright, but he’s the homegrown face of the franchise. They’ll also have to adjust that philosophy in the next year or two when it comes time to consider paying some of their elite young arms.
For now, the Mets like their financial commitments manageable, which also is a big part of Zobrist’s appeal. They took a similar approach with Curtis Granderson, who is halfway through a four-year, $60-million contract, and there’s no arguing with that deal after what he’s done for them in the first two seasons, even if he hasn’t provided the same power numbers he posted in the Bronx.
The Mets pushed hard for Granderson and ultimately went a little further than they initially planned because of his profile. Not only would Granderson add some lefthanded pop, but they knew he was unfazed by New York after what he did across town — something the Mets hoped would prevent a repeat of Jason Bay’s costly implosion.
Zobrist has played only for small-market teams in Tampa Bay, Oakland and Kansas City. But the Mets believe his October success and last week’s recruiting visit are enough to eliminate those concerns. There are no guarantees, but that’s as close as it gets in their eyes.
“He really knows himself, knows what kind of player he is,” Ricco said. “He’s very self-confident. I don’t think he’ll have any problem at all. One of the things we emphasized to him is that our clubhouse is set up to where he’s not going to come in and have to be the guy. I think we’re a good fit that way as well. He would not be coming in as the marquee guy.”
That’s not entirely true. Because the Mets have labeled him as their No. 1 offseason target, if he signs with them, Zobrist will be stuck with that anyway, even minus the $200-million contract. With Ricco declaring the Mets out of the Cespedes derby and the market for top relievers soaring beyond their price range, Zobrist is taking on an importance that is a bit out of whack for what he actually delivers.
“We certainly have a kind of level where we think the value is,” Ricco said, “and if it gets beyond that, then we’ll go in another direction.”
We don’t buy it. With Zobrist, the Mets have worked themselves into a position in which they won’t take no for answer. Fortunately for them, it’s looking more and more like a yes.