“And the winner for best use of $78 million is…”

OK, I don’t know what the other nominees in the category might be, but I also don’t think it matters. The Mets’ twin signings of Jose Reyes and David Wright are as solid an investment as any baseball team has made in recent years. The two deals lock up a champiosnhip-caliber core through the players’ peaks while avoiding a hefty investment in post-peak seasons, and they do so at reasonable, perhaps even bargain prices.

Let’s look at Reyes’ deal first. The shortstop’s new contract is worth $23.25 million through 2010, his age-27 season. The Mets have an option for 2011 at $11 million. The contract buys out at least one and possibly two seasons of free agency if the option is picked up. Eyeballing the current shortstop market, we see that free-agent shortstops come in around $10 million (Edgar Renteria) to $13 million (Rafael Furcal) a season for minimum three-year commitments.

Will Reyes be worth the money under this deal? He’s shown considerable growth at age 23, improving his power and plate discipline, the latter development turning him into a viable top-of-the-order hitter. If he simply repeats this season for the life of the deal, he’s a bargain in 2007 ($2.5 million), 2008 ($4 million) and 2009 ($5.75 million), with the possibility that he’d be slightly overpaid in 2010 ($9 million). The immediate question I have is how much of the apparent improvement in his walk rate will be sustained. After starting 2006 in a much more patient manner, Reyes has regressed more than a little:

          AB   BB    K
April    100   12   15
May      132    9   16
June     110    8   10
July      82    7   12
August    25    2    6

We’re carving up 2/3 of a season into even smaller samples, so take the chart with a grain of salt. However, if the viability of a long-term deal for Reyes is in large part predicated on the idea that 2006 is a step forward rather than a blip, then it’s worth noting that he’s given back some of the critical improvement in his plate discipline that makes him projectable.

If Reyes isn’t going to be a .370 OBP guy-and keep in mind, he might get there by batting .320 rather than walking 60 times-he’s still a valuable hitter, just miscast in the leadoff spot. A shortstop who hits .290/.345/.465 with 30 net steals-a realistic, even pessimistic expectation for Reyes over the next few years-pushes his team towards a championship and is well worth $12 million over three seasons. To return to a name I mentioned earlier, Reyes is a better player than Rafael Furcal was at 23, and Furcal went on to produce five wins a year from 24-26.

The risk of injury is real for a player who relies on his legs and who spends a lot of time sliding and diving, and Reyes is going to be exposed to that. He’s also a shortstop who runs the risk of hurting himself while turning double plays. He missed just one game last year and is in line to miss fewer than 10 this year (although he may miss more given the likelihood that the Mets clinch early), so durability isn’t a prominent concern.

This is a great contract for the Mets. There’s virtually no chance that they’ll lose money in the first few seasons, and the worst-case scenario is that Reyes isn’t a bargain at $9 million in 2010. That seems unlikely, just as the Mets not picking up a 28-year-old Reyes at $11 million seems unlikely.

As good as this contract is, I think I like the David Wright lockup even more. It cost a lot more money–$55 million, to be exact-but Wright is someone who has a chance to be one of the top ten third basemen in history, and who brings even more to the table than Reyes does. Wright is a much better hitter than Reyes, with much more power, better plate discipline and a greater ability to hit for average. He plays his position, third base, better than Reyes plays his; in fact, Wright is going to contend for the Gold Gloves that Ryan Zimmerman doesn’t win over the next decade.

The Mets actually signed Wright for what would have been his first two free-agent years, and have an option on what would have been his third. This is very unusual; it’s hard enough to get a player to give up one free-agent season, much less multiple ones. As it stands, the Mets have Wright’s rights through 2012 at least, his age-29 season, with an option on his age-30 campaign at $16 million. That looks steep, but as I’ve said many times, the problem with player contracts isn’t the cost, it’s the length. A one-year deal for a 30-year-old David Wright at $16 million is going to look a lot better than having to buy his early thirties for four or five times that number.

The bigger investment in Wright is justified by his performance to date. Whereas Reyes has looked like a star for months, Wright has been that good almost since the day he came up in July of 2004. His ’06 season has actually been slightly inferior to his ’05, although the difference is tiny. The comparison to Scott Rolen remains the most salient one, albeit with the hope that the back problems that have plagued Rolen don’t crop up. When Nate Silver counted down the 50 most valuable properties in baseball, he concluded that Wright was second only to Albert Pujols. That’s the kind of player for whom a six-year, $55-million contract almost seems a bargain.

When you make a commitment like this, you have to consider a bit more than the baseball. With both of these players, the Mets get marketable faces who can be used to sell the team to all of New York. Reyes being a Dominican-born Spanish speaker won’t hurt efforts to reach the city’s broad swath of Spanish-speaking baseball fans, many of whom are Yankee fans by geography. Wright already has a following not as much for his skills as his good looks, making him a dream for the sales department. When the Mets open their new park in 2009, they’ll do so with a left side of the infield comprised of in-their-prime stars, most likely anchoring a very good team, lessening the blow of increased prices in the new digs.

In three days, the Mets took significant steps in establishing themselves as a player at the level of the Yankees and Red Sox, not just competitive for a season or two, but for the arc of two stars’ careers.

I need to get this column up, but I wanted to point out how an initial impression can turn out to be wrong.

I got wind of the Livan Hernandez trade early yesterday, and knowing nothing but the name and the team involved, I was disdainful. Hernandez is having a lousy year, and the Diamondbacks had already rid themselves of a multi-year commitment to a heavy, bad pitcher in Russ Ortiz? Why make this kind of trade?

Later in the day, though, I started to come around on it. No, Livan Hernandez isn’t a very good pitcher, and he’s not someone who’ll bring the nation around to my idea that the Diamondbacks are going to win the wild card. On the other hand, Hernandez has pitched much better of late than his season line would indicate. Since a disastrous outing against the Marlins on July 6, Hernandez has made four consecutive quality starts, striking out 16 and walking just three in 26 innings, with just three home runs allowed. The competition hasn’t been stellar-the Cubs, the Pirates and the Giants twice-but there’s some indication that Hernandez is back to his 2004-05 form.

There’s something else inflating Hernandez’s stat line. Research by Keith Woolner and Rany Jazayerli showed that pitchers who throw more than 121 pitches in a start show short-term degradation in their performance. Well, Hernandez has crossed that threshold twice this year, on June 15 against the Rockies (138 pitches) and on July 1 against the Devil Rays (131 pitches). In the starts subsequent to those appearances, Hernandez allowed a total of 13 runs in 3 1/3 innings. Taking those two starts out of his line knocks his ERA down by about ¾ of a run. Just by not treating Hernandez like Old Hoss Radbourne, Bob Melvin should be able assure himself of a league-average starting pitcher.

That doesn’t sound like much, but looking at the D’backs’ rotation, that kind of addition could gain them a game or two over two months, and that could be all they need. I’ve advocated for Dustin Nippert, but he’s made two starts and allowed 13 runs, and he hasn’t pitched all that well at Triple-A this year. Claudio Vargas has allowed a homer every five innings this year, and has pitched the Diamondbacks out of a number of games. Hernandez not only should be an upgrade, but his ability to go seven innings-while not working past 120 pitches-will lighten the load on a bullpen that has been worn down to the nub.

The one thing that bothers me from the D’backs standpoint is their willingness to make this kind of deal with the Nationals. After all, the Nats just hired away Arizona’s Vice President of Scouting Operations, Mike Rizzo, to be their Assistant General Manager and Director of Baseball Operations. Rizzo was the architect of one of the game’s top farm systems in Arizona, and is considered to be one of the top future-GM candidates in the game.

No man alive should know the Diamondback’ prospects better than Mike Rizzo, so when it comes time to make a deal with his new team, wouldn’t you be a little leery about trading away the guys he was responsible for you having? If Rizzo wants two of your young pitchers, that should be a sign that you want to keep those guys; there’s no information deficit here, just your former exec asking after two guys he knows well.

The pitching prospects the Diamondbacks sent over, Garrett Mock and Matt Chico, reinforce a weak Nationals system. I picked Kevin Goldstein’s brain about the two, and he indicated that Mock was a big guy with excellent physical tools and stuff whose lack of performance has been a bit of a mystery. He sounded to me a bit like Bobby Jenks circa 2004, someone who could come quickly if he put it together. Chico is more polished than Mock, and has pitched well this year after getting beaten like a drum at Double-A in 2005.

I’m not sure what the Nats have here, but the fact that they landed on these names after hiring Rizzo leads me to believe that they’ll derive some value from this deal. However, the Diamondbacks, so very close to a postseason run, will also get what they need. Not every trade is won by both teams, but this one is one of them.

Thank you for reading

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