The Mets won their first pennant in 14 years last season while overcoming the lengthy absence of David Wright. To repeat that feat, it appears that they'll have to do it again. On Thursday, the team announced that the 33-year-old third baseman and team captain has decided to undergo surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck—a procedure that could potentially end his season.
Wright last played on May 27 against the Dodgers, homering for the third straight game. A few days later, he was diagnosed with the herniated disc and received a pain-killing injection, and when that didn't do enough, he was placed on the disabled list on June 3. Initially, the Mets hoped Wright could return in 4–6 weeks—a timetable that was quickly expanded to 6–8 weeks—but after consulting with doctors, he and the team reached the conclusion that surgery was necessary. Via a team-issued statement, he said:
“After trying every way to get back on the field, I’ve come to realize that it’s best for me, my teammates and the organization to proceed with surgery at this time. My neck simply did not respond to any of the treatments of the past few weeks. While incredibly frustrating and disappointing, I am determined to make a full recovery and get back on the field as soon as I can to help the Mets win. I greatly appreciate the support of my teammates and our fans throughout the last few weeks.”
It will take a few days before the Mets offer a timetable for Wright's return—not that they've been very accurate with estimates in the past—but via the Wall Street Journal's Andrew Beaton, a typical recovery period is normally three to five months, according to Dr. Andrew Hecht, chief of spine surgery for the Mount Sinai Health System. A three-month return would be in mid-September, so the door is ajar for a return to action in the 2016 season, but that would appear to eliminate the possibility of a minor league rehab assignment, leaving him to get up to speed either in simulated games or in the heat of a stretch run. A more conservative prognosis or a further setback would probably spell the end of his season.
Wright has played in just 37 games this year, batting .226/.350/.438 for a 115 OPS+ with seven home runs. Just before heating up with a modest six-game hitting streak including the three-homer run, he had endured a 4-for-34 slide with 17 strikeouts, collecting hits in just two out of 11 games. Limited in mobility due to back issues stemming from last year's diagnosis of spinal stenosis (a degenerative narrowing of the spinal column) and battling shoulder soreness to the point of throwing sidearm, he had struggled afield to the tune of -8 Defensive Runs Saved, knocking his value down to -0.1 WAR. Last year, amid a hamstring strain and the back woes that led to his diagnosis, he played 38 games but was a bit more productive, batting .289/.379/.434 for a 127 OPS+ in 174 plate appearances, albeit again with -8 DRS limiting his value to 0.5 WAR. Still, his late-August return gave the Mets a shot in the arm and allowed him to make just the second postseason appearance of his career.
Whether or not he returns this season, Wright and the Mets will have to determine how best to handle his future. He's only in the fourth year of an eight-year, $138 million deal signed in December 2012 and is owed $20 million each season from '16 to '18, with $15 million in '19 and $12 million in '20. Even with—or perhaps because of—the grueling regimen he requires to maintain his career, it appears quite possible that his body can no longer withstand the rigors of third base. Transitioning to first base or perhaps an outfield corner is no trivial matter given the initial workload to get up to speed at a new spot, to say nothing of the Mets’ current roster construction.
If there's a silver lining for the Mets, it's that they can recoup 75% of Wright's salary through an insurance policy after he misses 60 games; if he didn't play again this season, that would amount a bit over $5.5 million. That would allow them to pay for an upgrade on their in-house options, namely 24-year-old Wilmer Flores (who's started 13 of the team's past 17 games there) and Ty Kelly (who's started there five times).
Flores, who missed half of May due to a hamstring injury, is hitting .250/.315/.370 with two homers in 111 plate appearances, and while his 88 OPS+ matches his career mark, he typically has more pop; last year, he slugged .408 and hit a career-high 16 homers. He’s experienced at all four infield spots—including first base, where he's filled in for Lucas Duda, who is out until at least the All-Star break due to a stress fracture in his back—but a master of none, with -6 DRS in 46 games at the hot corner. Kelly, a 27-year-old rookie, went 4-for-23 with a homer in his brief stint with the Mets and was tearing up the Pacific Coast League (.388/.475/.530) at hitter-friendly Triple A Las Vegas, but he's an organizational player, now on his fifth team in four seasons. The well-traveled Kelly Johnson, whom the Mets recently acquired from the Braves for the second time inside of a year, has 88 games of big league experience at third base but just 12 last season and none this year.
One other in-house option for the Mets would be to move Neil Walker to third base and recall Dilson Herrera from Las Vegas, but Walker, who's second on the team with 13 homers, has been dealing with lower back issues lately and has just 15 games of big league experience at the hot corner. Eric Campbell, who played 48 games at third last year, mostly during Wright's absence, has hit just .186/.301/.275 in 280 plate appearances over the last two seasons.
Outside the organization, one tantalizing option came to light this week via the free agency of Yulieski Gourriel, a 32-year-old third baseman who was long regarded as the top player in Cuba before defecting in February. A close friend and former teammate of current Met Yoenis Cespedes, he's likely to be pursued by several teams, including the Yankees, and require something on the order of a four- or five-year deal worth upwards of $60 million. The Mets weren't expected to be players for his services at that price, but general manager Sandy Aldeson said on Wednesday that the team is keeping tabs on Gourriel, who also has experience at second base—something that would give the team flexibility once Wright returns, as Walker will be a free agent this winter.
Not happening: a reunion with Jose Reyes, who made four All-Star teams in nine seasons (2003–11) with the Mets. After serving a 52-game suspension for violating the league's domestic violence policy, he was designated for assignment by the Rockies on Wednesday. but Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball reported that the Mets have no interest in reacquiring him, even given that he would cost just a prorated share of the minimum salary. Reyes has also never played third base, and hasn't played second—which, again, would require Walker to shift to third—since 2004.
Beyond Gourriel, the Mets would have to wait for the July trade deadline picture to clarify. If the Angels (29–37) continue to sink, Yunel Escobar (.310/.362/.412) could be available; he's making just $7 million this year, with a $7 million club option and $1 million buyout for 2017. If the Astros promote top prospect Alex Bregman from Double A—where he's transitioning to third base from shortstop due to the presence of Carlos Correa—they could market Luis Valbuena (.238/.335/.411), who can be a free agent this winter. If the Pirates (33–32) slip out of the playoff picture, pending free agent David Freese (.298/.377/.448) figures to be available. The Twins might listen to offers for Trevor Plouffe (.234/.261/.366), who has struggled with injuries this year but has been a solid contributor for the last four seasons, averaging 18 homers and 2.4 WAR. The Athletics' Danny Valencia (.333/.376/.560) and Jed Lowrie (.301/.353/.361) are both on a nowhere-bound team, and likewise for the Padres' Yangervis Solarte (.273/.366/.489). Whichever team lands Gourriel in the next few weeks could be motivated to move their incumbent third baseman; the Yankees could pay a substantial portion of the $30 million plus they owe Chase Headley (.246/.316/.333) in order to make room.
For the moment, though, the Mets will muddle through, hoping for more clarity on Wright and figuring out whether third base should be their top priority as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. Even with the team in contention again, the fact that the face of the franchise will have to watch from the sidelines is a downer.