4:46 PM EST, January 21, 2012
Bernie Madoff, meet Ruben Tejada.
Ruben Tejada, meet Bernie Madoff.
Mets fans, meet your future until your swindled owner, Fred Wilpon, is replaced by someone who has the financial might Wilpon had when he and Nelson Doubleday bought the team from Doubleday Publishing in 1986.
While the Mets have been little more than a tease since the Bobby Valentine era — blame Yadier Molina for knocking them out of the 2006 World Series — they have stopped even building expectations. They're a New York team that no longer can play the free-agent game and hardly has a farm system that can compete with teams like the Braves, Nationals and Marlins in the National League East. That's a bad combination.
There's not likely to be any hope for the future until the 75-year-old Wilpon, long ago a teammate of Sandy Koufax's at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, agrees to move aside. He has sought new minority partners but hasn't put the team on the market, although he may be forced to soon.
With Wilpon's empire in Madoff-related collapse, the Mets borrowed money from Major League Baseball in 2010, then needed a $40 million loan from the Bank of America last November. MLB is poised to step in and take control of the team — as it did the Dodgers under Frank McCourt — if Wilpon defaults on that loan.
As they say around the diamond, humm, baby.
The strongest man in the Mets organization at this moment, it would seem, is no-nonsense manager Terry Collins. This says a lot because he's a guy with a 521-519 career record, whose biggest accomplishment is five consecutive runner-up seasons with the Astros and Angels. General manager Sandy Alderson won with the A's, a million years or so ago, but aside from landing top prospect Zach Wheeler for Carlos Beltran he has not made much lemonade with his team at Citi Field.
Nothing will matter more at this point than the question of whether the 22-year-old Tejada is capable of replacing the ultra-popular Jose Reyes at shortstop; it also wouldn't hurt if Reyes turned into a $106 million flop in Miami.
Reyes never really wanted to go on the free-agent market. He would have been fine being a lifelong Met, and might have thought he was going to be one as recently as July 31. That's when Alderson declined efforts from teams such as the Giants, Tigers and Brewers to trade for him. But the Mets were hoping Reyes' injury history — he has averaged only 98 games over the last three years — would lessen the interest in him on the market.
Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria instead traveled to New York to start a whirlwind romance at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 3, the start of the free-agent period. Tejada essentially became the Mets' shortstop at that moment. He's a solid fielder — better than Reyes, according to defensive metrics — but has shown only average hitting ability. Should Tejada slump, Collins will turn to former Cub and Pirate Ronny Cedeno, who signed for $1 million.
The Mets have had terrible timing with young players. They rushed pitcher Jenrry Mejia to New York and have seen him stall. They declined to trade center fielder Fernando Martinez for years before losing him on waivers in January.
If there's good news, it's that they have an exciting shortstop behind Tejada. Wilmer Flores, who will start in Double A, is a big hitter with dubious hands. But are they as bad as Wilpon's? He let the chance to build a legacy at a beautiful, new ballpark slip through his mitts.
And furthermore: • Wilpon seemed on top of the world as the Mets prepared to move from Shea Stadium into Citi Field in 2009. He funded a $150 million payroll. It could be less than $100 million this season without Reyes.
• Wilpon hardly has been the only Met hurting in recent years. Left-hander Johan Santana, a world-beater with baseball's best fastball-changeup combination for the Twins, has pitched just as well for the Mets (2.85 ERA, compared to 3.22 with the Twins) but hasn't thrown 200 innings since 2008 and missed 2011 after shoulder surgery. Jason Bay, signed to a four-year, $66 million contract, found no miracle cures, leaving him as injury prone as he was with the Pirates and Red Sox. David Wright and first baseman Ike Davis were sidelined much of last season.
• Wright also misplaced his power somewhere. The Mets are moving the fences in for 2012, while also lowering the required height for a home run to eight feet. It's a reaction to their hitting only 331 home runs in 2009-11, the three seasons they have been in their new home.
• Maybe the hitters have something to do with it. Their opponents have hit 440 homers the last three years, 109 more than the Mets.
• Pitcher R.A. Dickey, the best thing about the 2011 Mets, made an offseason ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The much-improved NL East will be harder to conquer, as the Phillies, Braves, Nationals and Marlins all have teams capable of winning 90 games. That makes the Mets an almost certain last-place team, a status shared with only the Orioles.