Mets in a miserable position

BY Bob Klapisch • September 10, 2010

Is Oliver Perez playing a game of chicken with the Mets, daring ownership to release him so he can walk away with next year’s $12 million salary?

That’s just one of the questions the Wilpon family is asking after yet another PR fiasco for baseball’s most troubled franchise. Perez, Luis Castillo and Carlos Beltran all missed a team-sponsored trip to visit wounded veterans at Washington’s Walter Reed Hospital this week – ignoring Jeff Wilpon’s personal appeal for the players’ cooperation.

Two of the Mets at least tried to defend themselves. Beltran said he had a meeting regarding the high school his foundation is building in Puerto Rico. Castillo said he simply didn’t have the stomach to be in the presence of amputees. Neither excuse softened ownership’s anger, but it was Perez’s reaction that drew the most heated response from above.

The left-hander didn’t even bother with an alibi, saying he wouldn’t talk about anything “outside the stadium.” Senior officials resisted the temptation to respond publicly, but one person familiar with the mood in the front office said Jeff Wilpon was “livid” with Perez.

That could very well be the reaction he’s seeking. Last month, Perez told WFAN he was being treated “unfairly” by the Mets, a comment that was met with derision, both in the clubhouse and upstairs at Citi Field. With a 6.65 ERA and a three-year, $36 million contract that runs through 2011, Perez has become the billboard of the Mets’ ineptitude.

A bad pitcher with an absurd contract and a defiant attitude, to boot. If the blow-off of the soldiers was the tipping point, the next move is now the Wilpons.

Do they have the stomach, or the financial insulation, to fire Perez? No one believes the left-hander can be resurrected, at least not in New York, but the Mets are already at war with Francisco Rodriguez, trying to void his guaranteed contract after he allegedly assaulted his daughter’s grandfather at the ballpark last month.

One rival executive said the Mets would’ve had an “air-tight” case against K-Rod had they sought to merely recoup the remainder of his 2010 salary. It would’ve been impossible for the union to defend a player who’d injured himself in the commission of a crime and was subsequently unable to compete.

But Mets ownership is seeking the maximum penalty, looking to get out from the $11.5 million K-Rod is owed in 2011 so he can be released in spring training.

An executive from another team said, “(the Mets) have zero chance of getting an arbitrator to agree to that much. It’s so outrageous that they might not even get the (partial penalty) that’s rightfully theirs. An arbitrator might just say, “you’re asking for too much” and rule entirely in Rodriguez’ favor.”

Clearly, there’s no way the Mets could eat the contracts of Perez and K-Rod; no team, not even the Yankees, can burn that kind of cash. A more modest option would be to trade both players, although with their emotional baggage and respective salaries it’s impossible to imagine any team willing to take them.

Perez is as close to poison as any player in baseball, especially if his decision to snub the veterans was as selfish and mean-spirited as it appeared. K-Rod’s for-sale sign might not be quite as tainted, especially if the Mets portray him as a man working his way back to the community. Rodriguez will have completed anger management therapy by spring training, which, coupled with his embarrassment and remorse over his arrest, might be enough to at least get another GM to pick up the phone.

But the rest of the list goes on and on. Beltran, going into his age-34 season, is the oldest centerfielder in the majors. Forced to wear a brace to protect a fragile knee, he’s lost his defensive mobility and looks just as helpless at the plate, almost 50 points under his career average at .235.

Beltran might not be as volatile as K-Rod or as militant as Perez, but he’s nevertheless just as disconnected. No need for a look-at-me display to let teammates know how Beltran feels about being a Met. He’ll be a free agent after 2011 and is already counting the days.

Castillo? He’s hated by fans simply because he’s in his decline phase, pulling down $6 million to hit .236. Like Perez, Castillo represents the era of big contracts to under-performing players, creating a roster that’s expensive ($128 million) and practically frozen.

Rebuilding the franchise will be the mandate of whoever follows Jerry Manuel and Omar Minaya. There’s been talk lately, generated by Peter Gammons, that Bobby Valentine will be the Mets’ next manager. But that comes as news to both Valentine and the Wilpons. It’s far more likely that Wally Backman, successfully running the Mets’ Class-A team in Brooklyn, will replace Manuel.

The process of toppling Minaya might not be so simple. While most everyone assumes the GM will take the fall for the summer’s catastrophes, Minaya isn’t necessarily willing to be re-assigned, as has been widely presumed. His contractual tie to the Mets is strictly as their general manager, meaning he’s not obligated to take any other job in the organization.

If the Mets want to turn Minaya into a super-scout and hire, say, Kevin Towers, they have two choices: They either re-work Minaya’s contract, or else fire him and eat the last two years of his pact.

That’s no small dilemma for an organization that’s looking to clean house, devise a new business plan and rise from the ashes by 2012. No team in the majors is bleeding attendance faster than the Mets, so it’s essential they act forcefully.

The obvious question is whether they can afford it. The better question is can they afford not to.

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