Money matters: Reyes, Mets set for rocky season?

Few teams in baseball will feel more relieved than the New York

Mets when the first pitch is thrown this season.

After making headlines all winter for all the wrong reasons –

the Bernie Madoff scandal, serious injuries, sagging ticket sales –

the familiar cry of ”Play Ball!” will probably sound pretty good

to owner Fred Wilpon, new general manager Sandy Alderson and the

rest of the scrambling Mets.

Problem is, there are just as many issues on the field as in the

board room.

Ace pitcher Johan Santana is sidelined until at least midsummer

following shoulder surgery. Carlos Beltran’s achy knees kept him

out of the lineup for almost all of spring training. Star shortstop

Jose Reyes wants a contract that might cost too much.

The NL East competition looks awfully tough, led by rival

Philadelphia’s four aces. And the high-payroll Mets have major

question marks all over the diamond: second base, catcher, middle

relief, starting pitching.

”We’re underdogs this year. Nobody expects much from us. We’ll

just go out there and see what happens,” first baseman Ike Davis

said.

New manager Terry Collins may be short on sure things, but he

doesn’t lack enthusiasm. Hired by Alderson to replace Jerry Manuel

after the club cleaned house last fall, the 61-year-old Collins has

a boundless energy that caught on with players this spring.

The fiery Collins went 444-434 during 1990s managing stints with

the Astros and Angels. Now, he’s charged with reversing the

fortunes (in some ways, literally) of an injury-prone team coming

off two consecutive losing seasons and four without a playoff

berth.

”He just brings a ton of intensity, a ton of passion and I

think that’s going to rub off on the players,” All-Star third

baseman David Wright said. ”I think everybody is going to enjoy

playing for a guy with that type of passion.”

Wright rebounded from a 2009 power outage to finish with 29

homers and 103 RBIs last year – though he struck out a career-high

161 times. He anchors a lineup that could be adequate if the key

components are healthy and productive.

Left fielder Jason Bay, signed to a $66 million, four-year

contract before last season, hit only six home runs and missed the

final two months with a concussion. He seemed healthy this spring,

but was still searching for his power stroke.

Speedy switch-hitter Angel Pagan takes over in center for

Beltran, a three-time Gold Glove winner who willingly shifted to

right in an effort to reduce the strain on his knees. Beltran’s bat

is crucial to the Mets, but he’s lost a few steps on the bases and

it’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to play regularly.

Davis is coming off an encouraging rookie season (19 homers) and

provides optimism for the future. Whether that future includes

Reyes remains to be seen.

A homegrown All-Star with electrifying talents, the 27-year-old

shortstop can become a free agent after the season and there is

talk he wants a Carl Crawford-type contract ($142 million).

The Mets, muddled in a financial mess because of ownership’s

dealings with Madoff, might not be able to afford that kind of

commitment. Even if they can, Alderson and his Moneyball deputies

in the front office may not think Reyes is worth a huge deal. So if

the club drops out of contention by midseason as many anticipate,

New York could try to trade its animated leadoff man for young

talent.

”I still have one more year here and I don’t know what will

happen after, but right now my main thing is play the game and try

to help this team win ballgames every day and see what happens,”

Reyes said. ”The last two years have been kind of hard on me and I

just want to prove to people I can stay healthy on the field.

That’s why I worked so hard this offseason to try to put it

together.”

On the mound, Mike Pelfrey slides up to become the No. 1 starter

in place of Santana. The 6-foot-7 righty had his best season last

year, going 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA in 204 innings. He’s scheduled to

pitch the opener Friday night at Florida.

Veteran knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is back after his surprising

success last season, and so is young left-hander Jonathon

Niese.

To round out the rotation, Alderson picked up a pair of former

All-Stars in Chris Capuano and 6-10 Chris Young, who once played

basketball at Princeton. Both were available at a bargain price

because of previous arm injuries, but they looked sharp in spring

training.

”I don’t know if anyone can take (Santana’s) place, but

everyone, myself included, we all need to step up. That’s quite a

void to fill, and I think some of the offseason acquisitions, like

Chris Young and Chris Capuano, I think they kind of went under the

radar,” Pelfrey said. ”I think our starting pitching is going to

give us a chance day in and day out.”

Closing games again will be Francisco Rodriguez, who has an

image to repair after attacking his girlfriend’s father at Citi

Field last season. K-Rod pleaded guilty in December to attempted

assault to settle the charges and is required to give the court

updates on his anger management sessions.

”I feel more relaxed,” Rodriguez said in spring training.

”It’s been a pretty good change all the way around.”

Meanwhile, the judicial ordeal goes on for Mets executives.

The club’s embattled owners recently filed legal papers

disputing a court trustee’s claim that they owe more than $1

billion because they should have known their investments with

Madoff were fraudulent.

Though searing allegations of shady financial dealings were made

public, Wilpon and team president Saul Katz have steadfastly denied

any wrongdoing, saying they were victims of the massive Ponzi

scheme. Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo was appointed as a

mediator to try to broker a settlement.

In January, Wilpon and his son, Jeff, the Mets’ chief operating

officer, announced they were looking into selling up to 25 percent

of the franchise because of ”uncertainty” caused by the

lawsuit.

”There’s probably two guys in this clubhouse that understand

what is even going on, and one went to Duke (Capuano) and the other

went to Princeton,” Wright said. ”I don’t think it’s had any

other effect on the clubhouse. Now, we’ll see after this season

with Jose being a free agent, with some other guys becoming a free

agent, with some money coming off the books.”

Indeed, this is a potentially turbulent transition year for the

Mets as they wait for more than $45 million in bloated contracts to

come off the 2012 payroll, including Beltran’s deal.

During spring training they dumped a pair of overpriced busts in

Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, eating $18 million. That appeased

some angry fans a bit, but ticket sales could be slow for Citi

Field’s third season and it appears every last dollar may be

critical to ownership.

Forbes’ annual report said the Mets lost 13 percent of their

value in the past year amid legal and debt problems.

”I think it’s going to take time to win back the fan base,”

Dickey said. ”It’s going to take more than a hot start.”

AP Sports Writer Howie Rumberg and AP freelance writer Laurel

Pfahler in Port St. Lucie, Fla., contributed to this report.