David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
David Wright said Tuesday he'll return "sooner rather than later" from lumbar spinal stenosis, the scary-sounding back condition that has sidelined him since April 14.
The Mets would like to believe him.
But "sooner rather than later" is not a timetable, nor is it any type of guarantee or promise. And the Mets have games to play. A lot of them, between now and wherever "sooner" falls on the calendar.
No one wants to start thinking about life without Wright, the immensely popular captain and run-producing third baseman. But the Mets now must begin planning for exactly that in looking ahead to the next month and possibly longer, because the only thing we learned from Wright's first public comments is that he's still going to be out for a significant period.
Wright's fate is now in the hands of the doctors and the physical therapists. All the Mets can do is hope that he does return to the lineup eventually. Otherwise, the season goes on, and Sandy Alderson -- along with Terry Collins -- have to plot a course without the captain for the foreseeable future.
"We probably have a little more clarity today than say, 10 days ago," Alderson said. "We're not at the edge of our seat waiting for David to come back at this point. So I think we do have to continue to assess what our other options may be."
Sentimentality aside, Wright's diagnosis -- as disturbing as it may sound -- actually is somewhat liberating for the Mets, who don't have to feel handcuffed in moving forward. Wright described his rehab as a "week-to-week" process, which involves checking in with his doctors every Monday to see if he can pass the next test. So far, he's been unable to clear even the first hurdle.
So here's what the Mets should do in the meantime. Start by reconfiguring their infield in the best possible defensive alignment. Put the most capable shortstop, Ruben Tejada, back at shortstop. Switch Wilmer Flores, an experienced second baseman, to second base. And also move Daniel Murphy back to his most comfortable position at third.
That shouldn't be so difficult. For starters, it's easier than making an impactful trade during the first week of June. We understand why the Mets had been reluctant to touch Flores during his defensive struggles earlier in the season. They were worried about him losing confidence, and then, as a result, losing Flores completely as a player.
But we don't see that as being an issue anymore. Despite his 10 errors -- yet another reason to move him -- Flores has done well at the plate, hitting .250 with eight home runs. Plus, the 23-year-old has displayed plenty of mental toughness. For all the postgame interrogations, and questions about his glove, the kid has bounced back with a smile each time.
This isn't a demotion. It's a matter of doing what's best for the team, and how could Flores be bothered by that?
"We never would have considered moving him if it was interpreted as some sort of failure on his part," Alderson said. "At this point, we want to keep people as stable as we can. Even if there are incremental gains to be made, we have to be careful about the negative consequences of moving people around."
What's the downside of putting players in their natural positions? Unless Alderson is pulling off a trade tomorrow for Ben Zobrist or Martin Prado, then why not maximize the pieces currently on the roster? Tejada is the best option at the most critical infield position. That's not even open for debate.
If Tejada can remain productive at the plate, with Flores and Murphy holding down their spots defensively, then maybe the Mets can do more than just stay afloat as they explore the trade market. As long as the door remains open on Wright's return this season, the most suitable candidates are versatile players like Ben Zobrist and Martin Prado, but they will be hard to acquire.
The first step toward solving the Wright problem is admitting there is one, and we all discovered Tuesday that it's awfully complicated. Back injuries have ended the careers of many professional athletes, and for now, Wright is definitely on hold.
The Mets can't remain stuck there in limbo with him.