On the eve of Opening Day, the Mets’ crystal-clear motivation is to win a World Series ring, something the franchise hasn’t accomplished since 1986.
But there is another edge to this particular group, an incentive that should not be underestimated when handicapping the Mets’ chances. It’s all about the Benjamins. This is a pivotal year for many of these players, with careers on the line and a ton of money hanging in the balance.
The Mets have 10 potential free agents on their current 25-man roster, including seven of the eight position players who will take the field for Monday’s opener against the Braves at Citi Field (assuming Rene Rivera starts over Travis d’Arnaud). The lone exception is Yoenis Cespedes, who had consecutive free-agent seasons with the Mets before signing his four-year, $110-million deal in December.
On top of that looming roster flux, Sandy Alderson and Terry Collins are in the final seasons of their own contracts, another double-barreled blast of uncertainty in looking beyond 2017.
But here’s the thing: It’s all good for what the Mets are trying to get done this season. If the ultimate goal is a parade down the Canyon of Heroes, having the next contract out there, dangling like a $20-million-or-so carrot, is a heck of a motivational tool.
“That means we want to win now,” Jose Reyes said, “because we don’t know if we’re going to be together again. We have the talent, and with half the team going to be free agents, we have to say, ‘Let’s do it now.’ ”
Reyes, who turns 34 in June, still is being paid more than $21 million by the Rockies this season, the finale of the six-year, $106-million deal he originally signed with the Marlins. That, along with a domestic-violence suspension, helped the Mets get him on a $545,000 option for 2017, but he’s a free agent at season’s end. As much as Reyes was thrilled to get a second chance with the Mets, the franchise that raised him, he still has to be thinking about extending his career beyond this year.
And that has to be the underlying mindset up and down this roster. Look at Neil Walker, who was on track for a huge payday in his walk year with the Mets before the need for back surgery cut short his 2016 season at 113 games. Walker already had matched his career best with 23 home runs, and his .282 batting average and .823 OPS were well above his previous career marks of .272 and .769.
It’s only human nature. Make every future dollar linked to daily performance and the productivity tends to rise. Once Walker’s market dried up because of back surgery, he accepted the team’s $17.2-million qualifying offer, but the Mets abruptly ceased negotiations on a three-year extension during spring training. We’ll see whether the spurned Walker makes that work in the club’s favor by having a good year. Some believe that will happen.
“We’re very aware that he’s a possible free agent,” Collins said Friday. “And I tell you, when you get good players and they’re challenged because their occupations are on the line, they pick it up. And I think Neil’s going to have a good season.”
Jay Bruce, who will turn 30 on Opening Day, is another significant Met gunning for big money at season’s end. He was handcuffed by the $13-million option for 2017 written into his contract. Regardless of his disappointing two-month stay in Flushing, it was a no-brainer for the Mets to pick it up on a 30-homer-plus bat. But with the Mets unable to trade him during the offseason, Bruce will be taking aim at the fences with renewed vigor, for his and the team’s benefit.
“I think windows open and close very quickly in this sport,” he said. “So this opportunity that we’ve been afforded is not something that I take for granted at all. I don’t know if I believe that it makes you try harder, because that suggests I wasn’t trying hard in the beginning. I just believe in consistently preparing every single day, and I think we have a group of guys that all think that way.
“And if we’re all able to do that, I think we’re going to be better than everybody else over a full season. That, to me, is more the narrative than ‘we got to’ or ‘we have to’ or ‘we must.’
“Obviously, the talent speaks for itself. But I think the character is going to allow us to take advantage of this window that’s open. Yeah, there’s a lot of us that don’t have any idea what’s going to happen next year. But being on this team allows you to not really focus on that.”
Maybe that won’t be the primary focus. But with so many players going all out for career years, to the distant drumbeat of free agency, the timing couldn’t be better for the Mets in their push for a title this season.
Now or never?
Of the 25 players on the Mets’ Opening Day roster, 10 could be eligible for free agency at the end of the 2017 season, which means next April has the potential to look very different at Citi Field. (source: baseballprospectus.com)
Neil Walker, 2B 31 $17.2M
Curtis Granderson, CF 36 $15M
Jay Bruce, RF 29 $13M *$8.25M
Addison Reed, RHP28$7.75M
Lucas Duda, 1B31$7.25M
Jerry Blevins, LHP33 **$5.5M
Fernando Salas, RHP31$3M
Rene Rivera, C33 $1.75M
Jose Reyes, 3B33$545,000
Mets’ 2017 payroll$149M
*Cabrera has a 2018 team option for $8.5M with a $2M buyout.
**Blevins has a 2018 team option for $7M with a $1M buyout.