David Wright, Peter Alonso, and the Law of Metropolitan Frugality

The New York Metropolitans have had what might be termed a disappointing season. (If this comes as news to you, I’ll wake you up when September ends.) Two of the Mets’ more recent debacles have involved a pair of players at very different stages in their careers. First, there’s David Wright, the Mets’ team captain and erstwhile third-sacker, who, as Jay Jaffe wrote last week, is attempting to work his way back from spinal stenosis, among other injuries. Then there’s Peter Alonso, the Mets’ first baseman of the future and author of a .285/.395/.579 slash line and 36 home runs across the upper minors this year, whom the Mets seem determined not to make the first baseman of the present.

Naturally, this has ruffled some feathers. The story with Wright seems to be that the Mets aren’t activating him because they instead want to collect insurance money, which is currently covering 75% of his salary while he’s on the disabled list. He’s not medically cleared to play despite appearing in minor league games.

This has led some to accuse the Mets of committing insurance fraud. (In a bizarre twist, MLB has a long history with insurance fraud, leading most recently to a case in which Ted Lilly was convicted of insurance fraud related to $4,600 worth of damage to his RV.)

Before we continue, please make sure you sit down, swallow any food or beverage in your mouth, and note the date and time, because I am about to defend the Mets.

No, the Mets are not committing insurance fraud.

To start, let’s define what insurance fraud is. Generally, insurance fraud is when one seeks compensation from an insurer for injury or damage that’s either fabricated or exaggerated. The idea here is that, if Wright has been medically cleared to play in the minor leagues, the Mets are fabricating or exaggerating his injury by not activating him for the majors. While that arrange might, indeed, seem unusual, there’s nothing legally wrong about having two different standards for major- and minor-league medical clearances. To that point, one finds that the Mets have put some fairly significant limits on what Wright can do in the minor leagues.

What are those limits? One report states that Wright isn’t allowed to dive for balls in minor-league games. Wright also still isn’t pain-free.

Then there’s Wright’s longevity. This year, he played in 12 minor-league games between High-A and Triple-A, spread over 18 days. In that span, he received five plate appearances just once. He also has essentially the same number of games with four plate appearances (six) as he does with three or fewer (five). In other words, Wright hasn’t shown he can play a full nine-inning game at third base yet, and designated hitter isn’t an option for the National League Mets. And Wright himself hasn’t been entirely enthusiastic about his health either.

There’s no doubting Wright’s heart or enthusiasm, but there is doubt surrounding his health. Wright isn’t pain-free, can’t dive for balls, and loses arm strength. And while it may not be objectively wise to play him in minor-league games with those limitations — his presence on the field would seem to increase the risk of re-aggravating his injury — it does make some sense that a player could compete in the minors with certain limits that wouldn’t make sense at the major-league level. That point is underscored by the idea that the Mets want him to have no limitations when he’s activated given that, unlike in the minors, the big club is ostensibly trying to win. (You may insert your snarky joke here.) So, in that context, having separate medical standards actually makes some sense. If the Mets are treating Wright’s minor-league games as practice and rehab only, there may well be some medical-clearance standards which Wright can reasonably meet for those games and not for the big club.

That’s not to say the Mets are handling the situation well in every sense. Showing little inclination to reinvest the insurance money in payroll is one such example Jay highlighted. But saying the Mets are committing a crime is probably overstating the case, particularly given the nature of Wright’s injury and his very real limitations. Now, this may change if he were to begin playing in the minors without limitations. But if the Mets activate Wright while he’s still limited, they’re conceding he’s medically cleared to play even when he might not be. There’s really no point to that in a lost season. And it’s worth noting the Yankees have done virtually the same thing this season with Jacoby Ellsbury, to far less public outcry. But it’s a stretch to say the Mets are exaggerating his injury for insurance purposes when he can’t dive for balls or play without losing arm strength yet.

Then there’s Alonso. There’s pretty much no doubt that service time played a factor, despite Mets GM John Ricco’s protestations otherwise:

“He has had an unbelievable season, he has done everything we have asked, he had a great year in Double-A, moving up to Triple-A, he’s having a real good year, but the way we see it, the lack of playing time is a big factor,” assistant GM John Ricco said Tuesday about a season in which Alonso has slashed .277/.394/.561. “We are going to have Dom Smith, Jay Bruce and we’ll have Wilmer all playing some first base and to have Pete come up and just sit when we looked at it didn’t make a lot of sense.”

The idea that Alonso won’t have playing time for a team on pace to lose 90-plus games doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, particularly because Wilmer Flores and Bruce are both veterans whose capability is fairly well established, and because Dominic Smith has been receiving a crash course in the outfield for some reason. Alonso’s agents seemed to agree.

Back in March, I wrote about a legal justification for challenging service time manipulation based on “justified expectations,” an argument Alonso’s agents seemed to cite here. The Mets, by contrast, say they want Alonso to improve on his defense, which has become the substitute du jour for “service time considerations” in the 2018 season. The Blue Jays used it to defend keeping Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the minors even as he’s made Roy Hobbs jealous this season. At least the Twins were honest when talking about keeping Byron Buxton, among the best defensive center fielders in the game, in the minors.

The point of this isn’t to say “Everybody does it,” even though everybody does manipulate service time. Instead, the point is more to show that the Mets aren’t doing something that unusual here. The Mets have a 23-year-old potential star first baseman. They don’t want to lose a season of control in a year where they’re going to lose the majority of their games. The Blue Jays have arguably received less backlash for being thrifty with Guerrero than the Mets have with Alonso, and there’s no doubt at all that Guerrero is the better player, now and in the future.

Instead, my point is somewhat different. Alonso’s situation isn’t an example of the Mets being the Mets, so much as it is an example of the Mets doing what every team does. The Mets have a well-earned reputation for being spendthrifts, and are now being viewed — and criticized — through that lens. Maybe teams like the Jays and Twins should be, as well.

We hoped you liked reading David Wright, Peter Alonso, and the Law of Metropolitan Frugality by Sheryl Ring!

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Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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CC AFC
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CC AFC

While there may not be anything wrong with having different standards for minor league and major league fitness – is there anything wrong with arbitrarily inventing the difference on the spot?

This is an honest question. It seems there would be a difference of analysis if there were pre-existing separate medical procedures which pre-dated Wright and which the mets followed, as compared to there being no such procedures and the team invented them on the fly to fit their intended result. It should be rather easy to figure out which of those two things happened. My understanding from various baseball twitterers is that no one is aware of any clubs having separate procedures before now.

MattyD
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MattyD

The difference is you have to be able to play a full baseball game in the majors while in the minors, you can try to play part time or opt out of the hardest, riskiest plays.
That might be a ‘different standard’, but it wasn’t invented on the fly and it’s hardly controversial.

CC AFC
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CC AFC

Well, that appears to be what they are claiming is the difference, but I don’t think it follows that is not arbitrary or uncontroversial. They are saying it’s a medical clearance issue, not a performance issue. He’s clearly healthy enough to be on a field to do some things. He can take at-bats, at least, right?
There shouldn’t be any medical reason why he can swing a bat in the minors compared to the majors. With expanded rosters in September, why couldn’t he just be a right handed bench bat?

Dooduh
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Dooduh

The notion that the Mets aren’t stretching this out for financial reasons (some 2.5M financial reasons in fact) would be wholly disingenuous, were one trying to make that case.

Then again, $2.5M for a meaningless few September games is not chicken feed., so it’s kinda hard to blame the Mets in this case. However, Wright has obviously been medically cleared to play baseball, so the line between this being legally justified and insurance fraud are certainly fuzzy.

tb.25
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tb.25

“However, Wright has obviously been medically cleared to play baseball”

Did you read the article? Cleared for minors and majors are different things.

Dooduh
Member
Dooduh

You don’t understand. Mickey pulled that out of his lower orifice, much like he does everything else. There is no different “medical clearance” to play baseball games. Mets team medical staff would not have permitted him to play minor league games were he less than fit to do so.

The Mets have raised the bar on certain markers they wish Wright to meet *above* the medical threshold however. That is the meaning of what Callaway said. Again, Wright would not have played in minor league games if he were not medically cleared.

Furthermore, the idea that he would have to play a full innings in back to back games before they clear him for the active roster is a convenient out for the team with the minor league schedule now concluded.

Anyway, Wright making that barehanded play charging in at 3rd is pretty much all you need to see of his fitness for action.

senor_mike
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senor_mike

Just because Twitter didn’t know about it doesn’t mean these dual standards never existed prior. I would more wager that a situation never presented itself where it was relevant to a given discussion, so the baseball public was never made aware of it.

It ties into MattyD’s point – when you think about it, it makes complete sense when you consider players rehabbing in the minors are not playing with the same level of intensity as those at the big league level. Were they actually held to the same standard they would never be cleared to play in those rehab games in the first place.

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On the first point, DiComo, who said he had never heard of this standard, is the Mets’ beat writer for MLB.com and Keith Law re-tweeted him. So I’m not just citing random people here.

Second, the explanation that he’s capable of playing at the same intensity in the majors doesn’t make sense. That is really a performance explanation (besides the fact that I’m not sure there’s any real basis for saying Triple A at bats are less physically taxing than major league at bats – maybe more easy to get a hit, but not sure there’s any mechanical difference).

If the team said he’s not ready, performance wise, to be playing the majors right now or that they think he’s just not better than Jeff McNeill, Todd Frazier, or Wilmer Flores right now, that would be one thing. But they are saying they had different criteria for saying that someone is medically permitted to play in a game. If this is a common policy/practice, you would expect to see someone to say “oh yeah, we had that with the Cardinals (or the Cubs or the White Sox or whoever)” and so far it’s crickets on that front.

I also think you are misinterpreting “rehab” games to mean “games that are played when you are less than healthy enough to play in major leagues” when, in actuality, it is more like “games played to regain your timing, swing, pitching mechanics, etc. after a long lay-off.”

senor_mike
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senor_mike

I know you weren’t citing randoms, and while I would expect DiComo and Law to be more familiar with such a stance, it strikes me as entirely possible that they’d never considered to look for it because newsworthy stories like this one (Star player trying to come back to LOLMets with insurance money mixed in) are so few and far between.

On the intensity point – MattyD already said it better than I could. Guys in minor league games get pulled earlier, sit more often, they play DH, they get instructions not to – for example – not dive for balls in the field. They are often not expected to go at 100% like they would be at the MLB level, as getting into ‘game shape’ is what is important, and I read that as a direct byproduct of greater concern for medical condition than I do performance.

Someone in Wright’s position (not having played for well over a year, 35yo, chronic back issue) is going to require more time to get up to that game shape than the typical player, so in that regard I am misusing rehab for lack of a more appropriate term.

Ultimately I feel like this comes down to whether you think he is or is not ready to play at MLB speed. Since I do not – I really don’t care what standard they call it that keeps his progress on a cautious path, because I do not want David Wright coming back to Flushing if it means endangering his health even further.

Dan1142
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Dan1142

I would add that making a fool out of himself is not what I’d like to see, even if that’s what he wants to do. If he can’t produce much better than Jose Reyes I can do without.

CC AFC
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CC AFC

David Wright is awesome and I don’t wish to see him perform poorly in the major leagues. That is totally different than thinking he is medically incapable of playing the game (whether poorly or well).

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Yeah, but with September roster expansion, Wright isn’t required to do any of those things, either. There’s no reason the Mets can’t use him exclusively as a pinch-hitter until they feel he’s ready to play defense, and even then they could simply remove him after 6 innings and/or not let him play in back-to-back games. It’s not like there’s any minor league baseball left to play as a suitable alternative, anyway.