Update: Less than an hour after this was published, the Mets announced that Wright would join the team for this weekend’s series in San Francisco “to continue his rehab under the watch of our training staff” and adding that he “will remain on the DL [disabled list].” Via the New York Post, “Sources said the Mets most likely would not activate Wright on the current road trip but would be more likely to do so Friday [September 7], when they return home.”
In the latest demonstration of their 80-grade ability to transform good news into bad, the Mets have turned David Wright’s promising rehab assignment into another illustration of the club’s parsimony and clumsy relationship both with players and fans. Even while promoting the 35-year-old third baseman and team captain from their High-A affiliate to their Triple-A one on Tuesday, the team — which has gone 48-73 since April 13, just half a game better than the NL-worst Padres — indicated that it’s unlikely to promote Wright to the major leagues this year, even for a September cameo, because of the insurance implications.
A seven-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove winner and career .296/.376/.491 hitter, Wright hasn’t played in the majors since May 27, 2016 and has played just 75 big-league games since the start of 2015 due to chronic spinal stenosis (a narrowing of his spinal column) and problems with his right (throwing) shoulder. He has undergone three surgeries since his last MLB appearance, one to alleviate a herniated disc in his neck (June 2016), one to repair his right rotator cuff (September 2017), and one to alleviate pressure on a nerve in his back (October 2017). In August 2017, before the shoulder and back surgeries, he attempted a rehab stint, but it lasted just three games before he was shut down again.
In the wake of that operating table double whammy, Wright wasn’t cleared to resume baseball activity until June, and had to re-learn the mechanics of throwing. His pregame exercises to prepare his neck, back, and shoulder start at 1:30 pm for a night game, and he deals with pain on a daily basis. As The Athletic’s Marc Carig described it in his recent profile of Wright:
A good day means dull pain, the kind that can be worked around with the help of a consistent workout routine. A bad day means sharp pain, the kind that can be negotiated with, though only with a lot of time and effort. Then there are the most agonizing days, when his battered body refuses to cooperate. On one of these mornings, Wright awakened only to realize that he could not move.
Tests revealed that Wright had torn the lining of a disk in his back, which he later explained “isn’t a big deal, it’s just that you’re in excruciating pain for a few days.” It was another scare in a fruitless journey that has consumed more than two years of his life.
One couldn’t blame Wright if his numerous ailments forced him to retire, but thus far he has battled to play to the end of the eight-year, $138 million extension he signed in November 2012, a pact that runs through 2020. He’s making $20 million this year, with salaries of $15 million and $12 million for the final two seasons. Finally sent out on a rehab stint on August 11, Wright has played 12 games thus far, 10 with Port St. Lucie of the Florida State League and two with Las Vegas of the Pacific Coast League. His overall numbers haven’t been encouraging (.171/.209/.195 with 10 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances), but after an 0-for-14 start with six strikeouts in his first five games, he went 7-for-22 with just two strikeouts over his next six before taking an 0-for-5 on Wednesday. More importantly, he’s avoided setbacks, has moved well in the field, and has played six sets of back-to-back games, though he hasn’t reached benchmarks such as playing three straight games, and hadn’t played nine full innings on back-to-back days until reaching Vegas. Here’s Wright flashing some vintage form at the hot corner:
— SportsNet New York (@SNYtv) August 30, 2018
Even as Wright told the Las Vegas Review-Journal‘s Betsy Helfand he believed that a return to the majors in 2018 isn’t “out of the realm of possibility,” the Mets have signaled otherwise. In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, assistant general manager John Ricco told reporters that the team promoted Wright to Las Vegas as part of a predetermined schedule, not on the basis of performance. Via the New York Post’s Mike Puma, Ricco said of the promotion, “It’s unrealistic to think he would be activated anytime soon, based on what we have seen to this point… [W]e tried to put in place a program that he could come back and show us he’s ready to be a major league player and so far he hasn’t reached that, whether it’s in terms of the playing time or playing skill. It’s kind of an all-of-the-above at this point.”
It seems obvious that getting Wright into a game Citi Field at some point in September, after rosters expand but before season’s end, would constitute a major highlight for the player and fans amid this otherwise lost season — whether as a reward for the arduous work he’s performed to get back into playing shape or as closure if Wright decides he has had enough.
“It’s a big goal of mine just because of the amount of work that you put in and the amount of time that you put in and the dedication to rehab that I’ve put in for two straight years,” Wright told Helfand. “You want to enjoy the rewards of all that work, and for me, that reward would be to go up to Citi Field.”
Yet multiple reports of Tuesday’s conference call left the impression that insurance considerations apparently trump any goodwill gesture. As it is, the team recoups 75% of Wright’s salary via insurance once he misses at least 60 games in a season — oh, and that money doesn’t get reinvested in payroll. Activating Wright for all of September would mean paying $3.21 million in salary. That figure could be reduced if the Mets were to return him to the DL after his current assignment expires (the insurance coverage would continue that much longer), but the opportunity for another rehab stint would dry up, since MLB rules require a minimum of five days between such stints, and all of the team’s affiliates will end their seasons by September 3.
Wright has been a credit to the Mets organization throughout his career. How will it look if the team doesn’t reward that, and his perseverance, after spending $2 million rostering Jose Reyes this year amid sub-replacement-level play (.197/.267/.328, -0.8 WAR) and the ongoing stain of a 2016 suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy? Combine that with the team’s refusal to promote prospect Peter Alonso, a first baseman who bopped 33 homers this year, because he’s not on the 40-man roster yet (while 11 pitchers with sub-zero WARs are) so as to give Jay Bruce (-0.2 WAR in the first year of his ill-advised, three-year, $37 million free agent deal) more reps at first base in September, and it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Mets have decided the price tag on a few ounces of goodwill is simply too high.
One could be forgiven for thinking that, for this franchise, the only constants are deGrom, dysfunction, and disappointment.
In the end, I do suspect that Wright’s quiet determination and dignity will win out, at least to the extent that he’ll make a major league cameo in September. Both he and the Wilpons know he could win a public relations war in a landslide if push comes to shove, particularly if this is to be his swan song. And if it isn’t, Wright deserves to head into the winter with a sense of accomplishment and hope that next year brings more opportunity to help the team. Wright may never return to being the player he once was, a star building a credible case for Cooperstown, but on a mismanaged team that is mired in mediocrity, and significantly short of reasons to cheer, the Mets have absolutely no reason to stand in his way if he’s ready to play.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.