Mets prepare for life after Reyes

The New York Mets are preparing for life without shortstop Jose Reyes.

The New York Mets called a news conference Monday to announce how reasonable Citi Field’s outfield dimensions will be in 2012 (finally), which probably made David Wright and Jason Bay happy. But it wasn’t the news Mets fans were hoping to hear as Jose Reyes heads for the door as a free agent.

Instead of unveiling a plan to keep their popular shortstop in Flushing for years to come, ownership is already in surrender mode. The Wilpon family has decided against launching a pre-emptive strike.

That means there’ll be no furious, behind-the-scenes negotiating, similar to what the New York Yankees conducted to keep CC Sabathia from opting out of his contract. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson says Reyes will be set free and will be given the chance to determine his worth before the Mets make an offer.

In other words: Goodbye, Jose.

It’s impossible for the Mets to separate themselves from an all-too-obvious truth: They simply don’t have the funds to head Reyes off at the pass.

Compounding the cash shortfall, the Mets can’t appeal to Reyes’ loyalty, having burned that bridge when Fred Wilpon made disparaging remarks about the shortstop in The New Yorker magazine earlier this year. And five seasons removed from their last postseason appearance, the Mets can’t even play to Reyes’ vanity as a big-game asset — they’re years away from contending again in the National League East.

So what are the odds Reyes ends up returning to the Mets? It’s seemingly so hopeless, executives decided on a diversionary tactic. The elaborate press gathering Monday was designed to draw attention to the outfield reconfiguration so Wright and Bay, who presumably are sticking around, will be able to hit more home runs.

The Mets decided to shorten the 16-foot wall in left-center to a more sensible eight feet. By constructing the wall at an angle, it will be four feet closer to the plate in left field and 12 feet closer in left-center. An even greater face-lift will take place in right-center, which will shed as much as 17 feet from its current 415.

According to the team’s calculations, the Mets would’ve hit 81 more home runs since 2009 had Citi Field been built to the new dimensions; opponents would’ve hit 70. The cost of the renovation will be financed by the savings in construction of the three-year-old ballpark, which came in under budget.

The surplus might’ve been directed towards a courtship of Reyes this winter, although the Wilpons needed to make an immediate decision on the renovation, which will take 6-8 weeks to complete. Besides, with the exception of this one-time cost, the era of lavish Mets’ spending is over, even for one of their own.

Alderson is hinting payroll could come in under $100 million for the first time since 2004. Considering they already have $67 million tied up in player salaries for 2012 (including $55 million to Wright, Bay and Johan Santana), the obvious question is how the Mets could possibly foot the bill for Reyes, too.

The pity is that the Mets once were capable of anything and everything five years ago. Arguably the National League’s best team in 2006, just one pitch away from winning the pennant, they dared to tread on the Yankees’ domain as New York’s royalty. Even as late as 2008, the Mets were setting attendance records, topping 4 million at the gate.

Since then, however, the crash has been fast and furious: The Mets have gone through three managers and two GMs, none of whom have been capable of reversing a streak of three consecutive sub-.500 seasons. And almost 40 percent of the fans who paid to see the Mets in ’08 have moved on.

The current Dark Age is why Reyes matters so much, according to one talent evaluator, who said, “He’s the only difference-maker in the whole organization.”

“(The Mets) have some good young pitching coming up, and it’s going to happen all at once, like it did in the '80s with (Dwight) Gooden and (Ron) Darling and (Sid) Fernandez,” the evaluator said. “But they have no one else who can play. There’s definitely no one who’s going to replace Reyes. That’s why they have to sign him.”

The Wilpons’ best hope is to take advantage of a depressed market for Reyes. The fact he was on the disabled list twice this past summer could, in theory, dampen other teams’ enthusiasm, although a competitive bid from the Wilpons would require low-ball offers from everyone else. That would include the Phillies — who might need Reyes to counter Jimmy Rollins’ possible defection to the Giants — and the Marlins, who might take Hanley Ramirez up on his offer to move to second or third base to create a spot for Reyes.

The Nationals are the other wild card, given two important factors: They’re flush with cash (and, as evidenced by the winning lottery ticket they handed Jayson Werth last winter, unconcerned about overspending). And second, the Nats are ready to introduce a new generation of young stars, including Bryce Harper and the refurbished Stephen Strasburg.

If Reyes wants to be part of the surge, the Nationals would be highly attractive to him. If he wants to play alongside a buddy (and fellow countryman), the Marlins (and Ramirez) could be his choice. And if it’s proven success that Reyes covets, how could he ignore the Phillies?

The Mets are praying none of these bidders overindulge Reyes, however, which would allow him to look at his history in New York in a meaningful way. The Mets are, after all, the only team Reyes ever has known. He likes New York, has a good relationship with the fans and remembers what it’s like to be successful in the game’s biggest market.

Here’s one other variable that only Reyes can quantify: Does he want the responsibility that comes with awarding himself to the highest bidder? Is Reyes looking for that pressure? Or is there something to be said for the built-in comfort of sticking with the Mets — knowing that, win or lose, he’s never going to be booed in New York?

Tough question, although the Mets must know that gambling on Reyes’ self-doubt is a long shot. Free agency’s engine is fueled not by crossed fingers but by dollars, which is why Mets officials already are preparing for life after Reyes. It won’t be pretty.

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