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.
Mickey Callaway said David Wright has not been cleared medically to play in Major League games. Callaway said there is a different medical threshold required to play in MLB games versus minor league games.
For the record, I've never heard anything like that before in my life.
— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) August 31, 2018
— SportsNet New York (@SNYtv) August 30, 2018
— New York Mets (@Mets) August 30, 2018
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.)
— Frank L (@fClamez) September 2, 2018
— Kevin J. Ryan (@wheresKR) August 30, 2018
Call me crazy… but if David Wright made it through his rehab assignment, didn’t get hurt, says he can play but the Mets not activating him so they can continue to collect the insurance money… isn’t that insurance fraud?
— Big Mets Fan (@bigmetsfan1) September 1, 2018
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.
David Wright: "I have been told I need to do certain things to become activated and I’m willing to do that. I’m going to reach those things for sure."
— Mike Puma (@NYPost_Mets) September 1, 2018
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.
Arm strength remains a concern for David Wright. He says if he gets overtaxed, "The pain starts creeping up into my neck, and that really is worrisome for me. That really scares me, because that [neck] surgery was no fun. … I need to be really careful with that."
— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) September 1, 2018
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.
Hear David Wright talk about his rehab progress: pic.twitter.com/HsINN6aVDj
— Betsy Helfand (@betsyhelfand) August 29, 2018
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.
Peter Alonso’s agents Adam Karon and Tripper Johnson had this to say about Alonso, who has hit 33 homers and driven in 111 this season, not getting a major league call-up: pic.twitter.com/dTEVJZzebj
— James Wagner (@ByJamesWagner) August 28, 2018
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.
Thad Levine on Buxton: “I think part of our jobs is we’re supposed to be responsible to factoring service time into every decision we make. … We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t at least aware of service-time impacts on decisions we make.” #mntwins
— Mike Berardino (@MikeBerardino) September 2, 2018
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.
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.