Cash-strapped Mets have Reyes dilemma on deck

He’s a homegrown star having a huge season in the media capital

of the world. He’s a few days shy of his 28th birthday, just now

entering the prime of his career.

And by the middle of the summer, Jose Reyes could be gone. In a

New York minute.

Facing a $1 billion lawsuit because of their business with

Bernard Madoff, the cash-strapped owners of the New York Mets have

another dilemma on deck: what to do about Reyes?

The speedy shortstop is hitting .333 and can become a free agent

after the season, so it’s possible his price goes up with every

triple toward the gap and headfirst dive into third.

”There’s days he’s the best player in baseball,” Pittsburgh

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. ”His skill set can be off the

charts. It’s electric.”

That puts new Mets general manager Sandy Alderson in a

pickle.

Trade a popular player for minor league prospects and you anger

an already-frustrated fan base. Hold out hope you can afford to

re-sign Reyes and risk losing him for nothing more than a pair of

draft picks as compensation.

It’s a predicament that small-market teams in Cleveland, Oakland

and Florida face all the time. But in New York, baseball fans want

their rebuilding projects limited to the Long Island

Expressway.

Have patience, huh? Go sell that to someone in Kansas City, not

in a city where the Yankees are the biggest spenders of all.

Pay up and put a winner on the field, pal.

”This is an ongoing process and one that we’re continuing to

evaluate, and a variety of different considerations are in play,”

said Alderson, making sure not to tip his pitches. ”At some point

these will all converge.”

Smart, analytical, experienced and levelheaded, Alderson was

hired in October and might be just the right man to entrust with

such a decision. But in baseball terms, the Mets only manage this

game for the next two months. After the July 31 trade deadline, it

gets tricky.

On the diamond, he’s doing everything he can to keep the club

respectable and prove he’s worthy of a lucrative, long-term

commitment. He’s also a box-office draw at Citi Field – where

attendance has dwindled while ownership is counting every

dollar.

The switch-hitting leadoff man is leading the majors with eight

triples and ranks among the NL leaders in batting average, runs,

hits, doubles, steals and total bases. He was back in the starting

lineup Thursday after a three-day stint on the bereavement list

following his grandmother’s death, and helped the Mets to a 9-8

comeback win over Pittsburgh.

”He is obviously the complete package. I mean, he’s an

offensive player who can turn the game around with his feet. On the

defensive side, he can make a huge difference,” Mets manager Terry

Collins said. ”Maybe the best throwing arm I’ve seen from

shortstop. He can make all the plays. He’s got the quickness, he’s

got great hands. He’s daring. He’s not afraid to make a tough play.

So, we don’t sit anywhere close to where we are right now without

him.”

Indeed, the combination of tools and talents that Reyes

possesses is rare. His game is tailored perfectly to cavernous Citi

Field, with its wide gaps and expansive outfield. Plus, he’s an

exuberant player who gets his uniform dirty and brings boundless

energy to the ballpark nearly every night.

That last trait can be good as gold to a big league team

grinding out 162 games per season, with few days off.

”I know there’s a lot of rumors out there that the team’s going

to trade me and stuff like that,” Reyes said Sunday. ”I don’t put

that kind of stuff in my mind. If I put that stuff in my mind, I’m

not going to perform the way that I want to on the field. So that’s

why I put it on the side.”

He has his shortcomings, too. Reyes is a free-swinger who still

tends to make mental mistakes on the bases, and his animated antics

have rankled opponents in the past. He also has a history of leg

injuries that limited him to 53 games in 2004 and 36 in 2009.

That led Fred Wilpon to say this about Reyes in a recent profile

of the embattled Mets owner in The New Yorker: ”He thinks he’s

going to get Carl Crawford money. He’s had everything wrong with

him. He won’t get it.”

Crawford, of course, signed a $142 million, seven-year deal with

the Boston Red Sox last winter. Whether Reyes scores that kind of

contract remains to be seen, but he has comparable skills and some

of their career numbers are strikingly similar.

For example, Reyes has a .774 OPS.

Crawford, almost two years older, was at .775.

”People say when you’re 27, 28, that’s when you’re starting to

put it together,” said Reyes, a three-time All-Star who played at

least 153 games every season from 2005-08. ”I can be better, no

doubt.”

The first thing the fourth-place Mets must figure out is whether

they could even come up with enough cash to re-sign Reyes, who has

spent his entire pro career in blue and orange from the time he was

16 years old.

The club’s ownership group is being sued by the court trustee

seeking to recover money for victims of the Madoff Ponzi scheme,

and it’s unclear how long it will take for the case to play

out.

Wilpon told Sports Illustrated last week his team is ”bleeding

cash” and could lose up to $70 million this year. Reducing the

payroll for 2012 seems likely.

Hedge fund manager David Einhorn has agreed to buy a minority

stake in the team for $200 million, and the deal is expected to be

completed by the end of June.

But is that influx of money – and a handful of bloated player

contracts coming off the books next season – enough to make the

Mets legitimate contenders to retain Reyes?

If so, how much is he worth to them? Some think Alderson and his

”Moneyball” lieutenants prefer to avoid large contracts and won’t

place such a premium on Reyes because his career on-base percentage

is only .338.

”I think that angle is overdone,” Alderson said. ”I mean, do

I value on-base percentage? Sure. But at the same time you have to

take everything into account, not just one element.”

If they’re not willing to go for broke with Reyes, for whichever

reason, the Mets may look to trade him for a much-needed infusion

of young talent.

And whether he becomes available in July or November, several

teams could be salivating over his services. Some of them with deep

pockets and fertile farm systems, too.

Hey, those World Series champions in San Francisco could use a

shortstop. So could Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee. Imagine

him at the top of Boston’s powerful lineup. Perhaps replacing Jimmy

Rollins next year for rival Philadelphia.

Or, dare to say it, displacing Derek Jeter across town.

One thing is certain: Reyes isn’t the only Mets star who might

be on the trading block.

Carlos Beltran is in the final year of his contract and closer

Francisco Rodriguez has a $17.5 million club option for 2012 that

becomes guaranteed if he finishes 55 games this season.

There’s even been talk about dealing the face of the franchise,

David Wright, though he is signed beyond this year.

A fire sale in the city that never sleeps?

Might just make ’em smile in San Diego.