Posted November 29, 2012

Wright move for Mets is to retain star third baseman

David Wright, New York Mets

David Wright had a bounceback season in 2012, notching his fourth top-10 finish in the NL MVP voting. (Chuck Solomon/SI)

Eighteen months after Mets majority owner Fred Wilpon vowed not to pay “Carl Crawford money” to retain pending free agent Jose Reyes, the Mets have shown a willingness to go nearly that high to keep David Wright. According to the latest report from the New York Daily News, the team is willing to offer the 29-year-old third baseman a seven-year extension on top of his 2013 contract for $16 million, bringing his total compensation package to eight years and approximately $140 million — very similar to the seven-year, $142 million package Crawford received from the Red Sox after the 2010 season.

The exact structure of the deal, which would cover Wright’s age 30-37 seasons, is unknown, and it’s said to be backloaded and to contain deferred money (the backloading would be along the lines of the six-year, $106 million deal Reyes eventually signed with the Marlins and the deferrals akin to those in the Mets contracts of Johan Santana and Carlos Beltran). At the very least, it’s a fair offer that allows the financially embattled club to look good in the eyes of its fan base even if Wright declines. If he accepts, New York will retain its face-of-the-franchise player during what could be some otherwise lean years.

In the midst of a dire financial situation that included not only the owners’ potential liability in the Madoff scandal but also other looming debts, general manager Sandy Alderson was forced to cut payroll from $142.8 million in 2011 to $94.5 million in 2012, one of the largest drops in baseball history. Though they largely dodged the Madoff bullet and received a $240 million cash infusion from selling minority shares in the team, Alderson isn’t expected to be able to go much higher than a $90 million payroll for the coming year, and the long-term ability of Wilpon and company to retain the team remains in question.

Within that context, the offer to Wright is a reasonable one. Ignoring the value of the deferrals (more on which below), the total package including his 2013 contract would represent both the longest and largest in franchise history, exceeding Santana’s six-year, $137.5 million deal and Beltran’s seven-year, $119 million deal. It would rank among the 20 largest in baseball history. The $17.7 million average annual value of the extension would rank second among third basemen behind only Alex Rodriguez, exceeding the $16.7 million AAVs of the extensions of both Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman and Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria, which were signed earlier this year.

That said, neither the Nationals nor the Rays have the financial potential of the Mets, who after all play in the largest market in the country and thus should potentially be able to afford to pay Wright more. Once the deferrals are taken into account, they may knock Wright’s standing down a notch or two in the pecking order. According to the information at Cot’s Contracts, Santana’s deal, for example, includes $5 million a year deferred at 1.25 percent compounded interest payable seven years later, reducing the present-day value of the package to $123.1 million. Longoria’s deal, signed earlier this week, is said to include $11 million in deferred money, reducing the present-day value for the total 2013-2022 haul from $136 million to $131 million. Even so, the devil in the details is not what should concern Mets fans.

What should matter to them is how well Wright can retain his current level of performance. After missing just over a third of the 2011 season due to a stress fracture in his back, he’s coming off a strong and healthy year in which he played 156 games and batted .306/.391/.492 with 21 homers, 15 steals and his most value since 2008. Via a glowing 16 Defensive Runs Saved (22 runs higher than the previous year) Baseball-Reference.com’s version of Wins Above Replacement values his season at 6.7 WAR. Baseball Prospectus’ numbers show him at one Fielding Run Above Average (12 runs higher than in 2011), with a season worth 5.7 WARP.

Both Wright and Longoria have averaged 5.2 WARP in their complete major league seasons (excluding Wright’s partial callup one in 2004), while Zimmerman has averaged just 3.4. Longoria has been the most valuable of the trio over the last three years, even with roughly half a season on the shelf in 2012, averaging 5.1 WARP to 3.8 for Wright and 3.2 for Zimmerman.

Where Wright may have the real advantage on the trio is in terms of his aging pattern. He’s three years older than Longoria and two years older than Zimmerman in terms of “baseball age” conventions, which categorize a player’s season based on his age as of July 1. Sticking with WARP, he has been the most valuable of the trio at every age from 21 to 27 except for age 23 (blank cells mean the player didn’t appear in the majors in those years):

Age Wright Longoria Zimmerman
20 1.0
21 2.0 1.4
22 7.2 4.0 4.8
23 4.7 6.5 1.8
24 7.6 6.9 6.0
25 7.2 6.1 3.4
26 3.3 2.3 2.2
27 5.3 4.0
28 0.6
29 5.7

That suggests that in spite of his injuries (which also included a 2009 concussion in a year that saw his power and his value dip), Wright is aging better than either of the other two. Supporting that assertion further, he has spent the least time on the disabled list according to the injury database at Baseball Prospectus: 72 games missed, to Longoria’s 136 and Zimmerman’s 119. He’s also the only one of the three to avoid surgery; Longoria has gone under the knife in each of the past two offseasons, one to remove a neuroma in his foot, the other to repair a hamstring injury that cost him roughly half a season, while Zimmerman has undergone wrist (2007), abdominal (2011, in-season) and right shoulder (2012) surgeries. Wright has also been much healthier than either Reyes or Beltran, both of whom the Mets chose not to re-sign in part because of their injury woes (Beltran was traded at the deadline before his contract officially expired).

All of which supports the idea that this isn’t an outrageous deal for the Mets to offer Wright in the context of big-name third basemen. Without adjusting for inflation, deferrals or aging — oversimplifying greatly, in other words — the average value of $17.5 million over the eight years requires Wright to be worth around 2.9 WARP per year to break even, which certainly seems possible in the near term, and by the time those adjustments and the backloading kick in down the road, it shouldn’t be so bad either.

For as much as one can criticize the way the Mets have done business in recent years, this appears — with the caveat that we haven’t actually seen the gory details — to be a square deal they’ve offered Wright, one that shouldn’t impede them down the road as they rebuild. If Wright declines the offer, it will be because he doesn’t want to wait out a rebuilding process, a fair enough choice, in which case, Alderson can trade him with a clear conscience and move onward.

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