NEW YORK >> Only three weeks left in a season they would rather forget, a large group of New York Mets players, coaches, executives and staff members gathered last Saturday afternoon behind the batting cage at Citi Field to watch and wonder about the man who has meant so much to the franchise.
The object of their interest was third baseman David Wright, the team’s captain who has not played in a major league game since May 27, 2016. A series of operations on his neck, shoulder and back, plus a chronic back ailment and a protracted rehabilitation, have kept him away.
But rather than bracing for the heroic return of a beloved player, there was another reason the Mets were paying such close attention to Wright: insurance payments. The franchise stands to lose millions of dollars if he succeeds in getting off the disabled list.
The Mets, of course, insist they are rooting for Wright’s comeback and that any delay in his return is owed to his health, not financial considerations. But, then again, this is a franchise dogged by questions about its frugality.
“Where we’ve been all along is a health thing,” the assistant general manager, John Ricco, said last week when asked about the financial component of Wright’s comeback. “He’s been out two years, and just making sure that when he comes back, he’s physically able to take the field and perform.”
The Mets took out an insurance policy for the eight-year, $138-million contract extension that Wright, the team’s longest-tenured player, signed in 2012. Insurance covers 75 percent of Wright’s salary — $20 million this season, or more than $3 million a month — once he misses at least 60 days. If the Mets activate Wright from the disabled list for, say, the final two weeks of the season, they pay the full amount owed for that period.
But that would also affect next season, because the 60-day deductible clock would be reset. So if Wright were activated this month and then missed all of next season, the Mets would still be on the hook for 100 percent of the salary for 60 days. Wright is owed $15 million in 2019 and $12 million in 2020, the final year of his contract.
Jeff Wilpon, a member of the family that owns the team and its chief operating officer, said in the offseason that the team preferred a healthy Wright on the field. Yet he also said the insurance policy was “not cheap,” that the team had to consider Wright’s full salary as part of its budget calculations in case he did return, and that paying even a quarter of Wright’s $20 million salary if he missed the entire season was “a big number.”
Through a spokesman, Wilpon declined to comment for this article.
During spring training, Wright suffered a setback with his shoulder and wondered how much more his body could take, but he was not going to retire just yet.
He grew more determined to return this season as he began a minor league assignment in mid-August under the terms of his rehabilitation. Wright was undeterred when the minor league season and his 20-day rehabilitation period ended, or when Ricco said two weeks ago that the Mets had not seen Wright play consistently “on a quantity or quality basis.”
“He had the better part of the summer to get to the point to come back and play in games,” Ricco said last week. “He did that, but obviously not to the level that we had talked about. But it does get difficult to foresee a situation where he could come back to that level.”
Wright’s health problems have been difficult to overcome. He has spinal stenosis, a chronic narrowing of the spinal canal that is at the center of his physical breakdown. On any given day, the aftereffects from neck fusion surgery and rotator cuff surgery can also be felt, making it nearly impossible for Wright to play every day again. He can no longer throw with the same force of old, and he opts for a sidearm throwing motion now.
In batting practice Saturday, Wright hit a vintage, opposite field home run off teammate Tim Peterson, but he still looked rusty and readily admitted his timing needed some work. He had not faced pitching since Oct. 29. While in the minors, Wright collected only seven hits — just one for extra bases — in 41 at-bats over 12 games.
Although Wright’s stature with the team would be a factor, Ricco said the decision to clear Wright for major league play will largely be up to the medical staff.
There is another variable in Wright’s return: Wright planned to meet with Wilpon after practice on today to discuss a plan for the rest of the season. It is uncommon for an owner to be so involved with medical decisions, but Wright maintains a close relationship with the Mets owners, who are deeply involved in the team’s operations.
“The last thing I want to portray is that there is some sort of rift between the Mets and I,” Wright said Saturday. “That’s false. There has been communication. I know where they stand, and they know where I stand. The communication, especially recently, has been fantastic.”
Wright’s return would surely lift fans. Since the Mets last reached the playoffs in 2016, their average attendance per game has plunged — from 34,440 in 2016 to 30,378 last year to 28,053 this season.
Yet the fan base’s connection to Wright is so strong that the hashtag #LetDavidPlay has emerged on social media and “Free David Wright” signs have appeared in the stands at Citi Field. For that reason, Wright could be a draw with nine home games remaining after today.
Despite the odds, Wright said he believed the Mets would ultimately medically clear him and allow him to return this season.
“Obviously I want to play and there are understandably some hurdles that I have to clear before that happens,” he said.