Fourteen years ago this week, almost to the day, the Mets put their starting shortstop on the disabled list with a recurring thumb injury. And to provide a jolt for an underperforming team desperately in need of a spark, the general manager considered reaching for his top prospect from Triple-A to fill the vacancy.
With one critical difference. In 2003, when Rey Sanchez was placed on the DL with that damaged thumb, then-GM Steve Phillips made the call to Norfolk for a 19-year-old shortstop named Jose Reyes. It was done under one condition. As soon as Sanchez healed, Reyes would be returned to the Tides. Phillips made that clear before Reyes even dressed for that June 11 game against the Rangers in Arlington.
“They told me it was only going to be for 10 games,” Reyes recalled Tuesday afternoon at Citi Field. “And then I never went back.”
Reyes convinced Phillips he deserved to stay, smashing any preconception about his ability to handle the major-league jump. We bring this up now because the Mets found themselves in almost the exact same situation Tuesday, when they put Asdrubal Cabrera on the DL with a sprained left thumb. Despite having Amed Rosario, basically Reyes 2.0, proving his worthiness out at Triple-A Las Vegas, the Mets chose not to repeat history and went with multi-purpose T.J. Rivera instead.
When Terry Collins was asked before Tuesday’s game if promoting Rosario was discussed, the manager replied, “To my knowledge, no.”
There are a few reasons for that, none of which apparently has to do with Rosario’s impressive performance in Vegas, where he was batting .338 with seven home runs and 45 RBIs through his first 63 games. Those numbers certainly merit a plane ticket to LaGuardia. But unlike Phillips, who was open to that initial short-term tryout for Reyes, Sandy Alderson & Co. aren’t willing to do the same for Rosario. They want to give him the shortstop job permanently and there’s a sense he’s not yet prepared for that long-haul assignment.
Still, this is more about the Mets’ readiness for Rosario than vice versa, and in the team’s thinking, they have some other issues to sort through before installing their next franchise shortstop. On the surface, it seems like an easy swap: lose Cabrera, insert Rosario. But the Mets anticipate having Cabrera back before too long, and there also is Reyes, now getting one last opportunity — at his most comfortable position — to prove he’s worth keeping.
With Wilmer Flores deserving an everyday shot at third base, the Mets plan to use this Cabrera DL stint to give Reyes a longer-term audition at short. To put it mildly, Reyes has been a disappointment, entering Tuesday hitting .189 with a .261 on-base percentage. If not for his Mets’ lineage, and clubhouse popularity, Reyes might already be a goner. Eating his contract isn’t an issue — he’s only due the $325,000 left on his minimum for this season.
Reyes, who just celebrated his 34th birthday on Sunday, sees what’s going on. He knows that time is running out as Rosario — his friend and protege — pushes for his dream shot.
“I understand,” Reyes said. “I’m not swinging the bat well, and I’m not a prospect anymore. All I can do is try to do my job.”
But if Reyes continues to slump over the next 10 days or so, there’s the very real possibility he could be handing off the shortstop position to Rosario, with the Mets then figuring out another role for Cabrera, maybe shifting him over to third base part-time. Listening to Reyes speak affectionately about Rosario, he’s looking forward to the fellow Dominican’s promotion, whatever the fallout. The two keep in touch almost every day after striking up a fast friendship during spring training, and as someone whose early career traveled an identical path, Reyes is uniquely qualified to impart advice to Rosario.
“There’s a lot of talk about him coming up, and people are always asking,” Reyes said. “But I told him, make sure you put your work in. Just continue to hustle and play hard every day. The other stuff is going to take care of itself.”
Oddly enough, the one left standing in his way is Reyes.