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Will Reyes, Mets marriage last?

Image: Jose Reyes of the New York Mets (© Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
The Mets would like to see if Reyes can remain healthy.
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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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Terry Collins could be forgiven for stretching the truth the other day when he called Jose Reyes, “the best player in the National League.”

The new Mets manager was speaking to a group of kids at Citi Field, and, besides, there’s nothing wrong with getting on the good side of one of the organization’s pivotal figures.

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It’s easy to put Reyes in that small fraternity of five-tool players — he’s got a baseball DNA to die for. But the shortstop's career has never quite matched his potential, at least not in the last two seasons, which leaves both Reyes and the Mets in a quandary going into the summer of 2011.

Reyes is in his walk year, and while the Mets would love to lock him up to a multi-year deal, they also need to know that the oft-injured shortstop is healthy enough for a long-term commitment. Here’s where it gets complicated:

Reyes says he’s not crazy about negotiating during the regular season. While stopping short of issuing a Albert Pujols-like deadline on talks, it’s unlikely the Mets will be in any kind of hurry. Instead, they’ll wait until June or July to see if Reyes can clone his 2006-level of excellence.

By that time, however, Reyes will already be measuring his worth on the free-agent market, which means the Mets have to at least consider the possibility of trading Reyes before he leaves.

So there’s the catch-22: how do you sign your best player unless you know he can stay off the DL? But if he can, how do you know you’ll keep him?

Reyes, who is earning $11 million this year, hit .282 with 11 homers, 54 RBIs and 30 steals in 133 games last season. At age 27, he’s just about to enter the prime of his career, although he was on the field for only 36 games in 2009, and had to deal with a thyroid scare and oblique injury in 2010.

Still, Reyes’ numbers in 2008 — 204 hits, including 72 extra-base hits — combined with his speed make him a nearly irreplaceable commodity, which is certainly one of the factors that GM Sandy Alderson has to weigh.

Trading Reyes might make sense if the Mets don’t think they can keep him, but as they begin their rebuilding program in earnest in 2012, they have to ask who, exactly, is out there to replace him?

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The same goes for Carlos Beltran, who, like Reyes, is one of the candidates to be dealt by the July 31 trading deadline. Moving Beltran makes sense if the Mets want payroll flexibility in the future — they already have an estimated $50 million coming off the books after the ’11 season — but there’s no one out there who’ll remind Mets fans of the departed Beltran.

There’s even a legitimate question as to whether the Mets can and want to afford Reyes’ future earnings. Despite the Wilpon family’s insistence of their financial health — pointing to the $140 million committed to this year’s payroll — it’s also true they’ve closed the spigot this winter.

The Mets have spent less than $7 million in free-agent signings during the current offseason, their lowest outlay since the 1997-98 offseason, according to research compiled by ESPN-New York. Even the Pirates have been more generous in these winter months.

That may or may not mean the Wilpons are hurting for money. The counter-argument says there wasn’t much to spend it on this winter, anyway, not with the Mets’ roster already locked up by the contracts of Luis Castillo and Ollie Perez. That’s $18 million right there.

But it remains to be seen how much of the freed up money will be re-invested into the 2012 team. GM Sandy Alderson says there’s no guarantee every penny will be spent, which could mean at least a 2-3 year rebuilding program is under way, with the chance that it’ll be 2015 before the Mets are championship-caliber again.

Will the 62-year-old Alderson be around that long? He seems energized, for now, and friends say he would’ve never taken the Mets’ job if the Wilpons were broke and without the means to replenish the roster in a meaningful way.

Still, the Mets don’t figure to be contenders this coming summer; Johan Santana won’t be ready until midseason and the Phillies (and even the Braves) look too strong. And that’s why the Reyes question is so intriguing, perhaps the most challenging one that Alderson faces right now.

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If the Mets don’t want to pay Reyes, what other player is so well suited for Citi Field’s cavernous dimensions, where every line drive in the gap has a good chance to turn into a triple?

Of course, there’s one longshot scenario out there, and it’s about as radical as it gets. Trade Reyes, trade Beltran, clear out all the expiring contracts this winter. With all that extra money, the Mets could take a run at Albert Pujols.

It’s crazy, of course — if not impossible, since the Cardinals have no intention of letting the game’s greatest hitter walk. But if Pujols and his employers don’t have a deal done in the next three weeks, he’ll enter that wide-open space called free agency, where everyone, even dreamers like the Mets, have a shot.

Tagged: Mets, Cardinals, Carlos Beltran, Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes

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