Who would have predicted that the New York Mets would be playing exciting baseball in July? The team started the season in shambles, descended lower after injuries decimated its infield and pitching, and yet somehow has remained on the periphery of the playoffs. The Mets are three games over .500 for the first time since July 23, 2010, and they are playing good baseball. They are 9 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East--but only 6 1/2 games back in the wild card standings.
Exceeding expectations is nice, but a baseball team with a $119 million payroll should be doing better than struggling to stay above .500. Mets fans are a patient lot, because they have to be, but New York's front office demands more. They want to win championships and sell out games and merchandise. So as MLB teams move toward the All-Star break, Mets management is trying to decide how many players to trade, and which ones. It's a tricky decision.
David Wright, Johan Santana and Ike Davis will return from the disabled list at some point this season, probably in that order. An influx of talent of that caliber could boost the Mets considerably, perhaps enough to secure the wild card.
New York will need them. The holes in the Mets lineup have allowed a few young players to show what they can do, and while Justin Turner, Ruben Tejada and Josh Thole have proven competent and productive, none of them seem poised to put in the kind of star performance the Mets need to make or advance in the playoffs.
In pitching, Jon Niese and Dillon Gee have surprised with their combined 16-9 record. When ace Johan Santana, comes back, the Mets could remove the weakest link from the rotation. The fans are calling for Mike Pelfrey's head, and while the big fastball pitcher has zig-zagged to a 5-7 record, the sense is that Mets management hasn't given up on him yet. R.A. Dickey is not safe either. The knuckleballer is 4-7--but he leads the team with a 3.68 ERA.
The Mets still aren't filling enough seats at Citi Field, so can the owners afford to have a fire sale on players and alienate fans further? Can the Wilpons wave the white flag and concede the season this early? Ahead of New York in the wild card race are the Brewers, the Diamondbacks, and the Braves--three solid teams. Overtaking them is a tall order. And realistically, the NL East division championship is a lost cause, with the Phillies looking World-Series ready at the top. Look for the Mets front office to hedge their bets with at least some trade activity--enough to acknowledge a lost season and build a brighter future, and not too much to disenchant today's fans.
Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez seems like the least painful trade to make. His option for 2012 is guaranteed if he closes 55 games this season and doctors clear him at the end of the season. The Mets will be on the hook for a $3.5 million termination buyout (versus $17.5 million salary for 2012) if the team doesn't exercise the option for 2012. Trading him before his option kicks in saves the franchise a ton of money, and while Pedro Beato and Bobby Parnell aren't intimidating options to replace him, the Mets could get by without K-Rod.
The rumor mill has Rodriguez and veteran setup man Jason Isringhausen on the auction block. The damage of such trades could be minimized if New York's starters eat a lot of innings. But from the Mets rotation, only Niese has shown a tendency to deliver a lot of quality starts (11 this season). There's a real risk of some heartbreaking bullpen collapses coming the Mets' way if those two are traded. And they wouldn't be traded for decent relief pitchers looking for a change of scenery. The idea is that New York would trade these two coveted pieces in exchange for prospects, not help for 2011.
Jose Reyes and Wright have been mentioned in trade rumors, but Wright might be undervalued coming off a fractured vertebra. Other teams would want to see how he emerges from the injury before trading for him. And trading the exceptional Reyes at this point would not just be a sign of surrender for this season, but for several years to come. The Wilpons have to keep him until the he becomes a free agent in the fall, and hope they can find the money to re-sign him. Trading Reyes now could result in fans gathering outside the Wilpon residence with torches and pitchforks.
The biggest question mark, then, is Carlos Beltran.
This is the last year in his expensive (7-year, $119 million) contract, and his bat is on fire (.880 OPS, MLB-leading 26 doubles). The Mets would have no problem finding a suitor for his contract, even though they would just be renting him for a couple of months before he becomes a free agent. His knees are shot, and he seems to struggle in right field playing defense. But removing his potent bat from the lineup could cripple the Mets.
They have no acceptable replacement for Beltran internally. Fernando Martinez has failed to deliver on his promise. Scott Hairston, Jason Pridie and Willie Harris are not everyday players. Angel Pagan is valuable for his glove in center field, but his .693 OPS is not good enough for an outfielder. And then there's Jason Bay in left field.
In the next seven games, the Mets will face elite starting pitchers in every game--Clayton Kershaw, Ryan Vogelsong, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. The schedule is brutal. The Wilpons have to be preparing for trades with such a daunting stretch in front of this overachieving team. The Mets will have to win at least four of them to stay Sandy Alderson's hand and prevent the dismantling of the team. For fans, what they do with Beltran will be the bellwether. If Beltran is still in an orange-and-blue uniform on Aug. 1, then you gotta believe. If someone new is patrolling right field, the tune is wait 'til next year.