From their inception a half century ago, the New York Mets have been primarily defined by pitching. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Nolan Ryan provided the Mets respectability and ultimately a World Series championship using their prowess on the mound. Unlike Seaver and Koosman, Ryan’s development took longer as he struggled to command his fastball.
The Mets’ patience in Ryan would wane in an infamous trade in 1972, which saw him dealt to the California Angels for former All-Star Jim Fregosi, who struggled to adapt to the New York spotlight. Fregosi would open a revolving door of players to man third base for the Mets until David Wright‘s debut in 2004. Now, one decade since his arrival in Queens, Wright faces the most critical challenge in his career, the prospect of spinal stenosis prematurely ending his baseball career.
Not too long ago the Mets envisioned both Wright and Jose Reyes as cornerstones on the left side of the infield for the next decade. Wright would live up to the heigh expectations with five consecutive .300 seasons. A postseason appearance during the 2006 campaign seemingly clinched Wright’s status as a Mets’ icon and solidified the Mets as a perennial contender in the National League East.
A 30-30 season followed, coupled with multiple triple digit seasons of runs batted in. The Mets had developed and cultivated the most celebrated third baseman in franchise history, but a move from spacious Shea Stadium to the cavernous Citi Field compressed Wright’s power output in 2009.
Concussed by a Matt Cain fastball, Wright would never exceed 30 home runs in a season again, while injuries began to hamper the Mets’ captain in every other season.
Though the .300 seasons continued with remarkable consistency, Wright’s run production plummeted, leading many to question his status as an elite hitter. The Mets would produce just a single playoff season with Wright in the fold, as the club faded in the standings with each passing year. Intangibles began to take precedence ahead of individual achievement in 2013 and with the team incrementally rebuilding, Wright chose to remain, agreeing to a seven-year, $122-million contract extension through the 2020 season. Like most long-term pacts, the deal appeared to look better on paper. Rotator cuff inflammation would curtail Wright’s overall production, finishing with a .269 average and heading towards the wrong side of 30. Significant strides were expected heading into this season, but a case of spinal stenosis in the lower back puts his season in jeopardy, creating a void at the hot corner and potentially leading to future decline both at the plate and in the field.
According to various medical journals, spinal stenosis occurs when the spinal canal begins to narrow, compressing the nerves traveling to the lower back. The injury is typically common in professional football where violent contact is at the essence of each play. Former New York Giants running back David Wilson and Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin both ended their playing careers in the National Football League due to spinal stenosis and crippling nerve damage around the neck. Attempting to play through the injury risks permanent disfigurement and severe physical ailments. Despite its cerebral nature, spinal stenosis is no stranger to the game of baseball. Former Mets centerfielder Lenny Dykstra saw his career come to a close at 35 years of age due to the condition. Dykstra, who hit .348 for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1993 World Series, failed to equal his career season, unable to garner more than 386 at bats during his final three big league seasons. Dykstra would make just one more All-Star appearance before ending his career for good.
Unlike most sufferers of spinal stenosis, Wright’s ailment appears treatable, since the source of his pain resides in the lower back. Prior to the Mets series in Pittsburgh last weekend, the condition went largely undetected, placing the seven-time All-Star third baseman in a stasis of limbo. Multiple attempts to resume baseball activities would halt due to increasing back pain, leaving the Mets organization uncertain of their future. Daily questions about Wright’s status created increasing difficulty for both general manager Sandy Alderson and the skipper Terry Collins. Alderson believes the condition is treatable and not career-ending as some feared, though information about Wright’s future continues to be uncertain for the time being. “Nobody said it’s going to be a long-term problem,” Alderson said. “And even if it were that it can’t be managed. That’s the best information we have right now.”, (NJ.com). In the face of optimistic prognosis, concerns about Wright’s health linger, primarily in regard to the team on the field. In an interview Monday with Steve Somers of WFAN radio, former Mets first baseman and current television analyst Keith Hernandez expressed grave concern for Wright and the dearth of viable alternatives. “I just don’t know what (Mets GM) Sandy Alderson is gonna do (at third base),” Hernandez said. “I have no idea whether they’re gonna go to the minor league system or make a trade. I don’t know. I just hope they can hang in there. But I am gravely concerned about David Wright.”, (WFAN.com).
Wright’s injury status and his role as a team captain hearkens back comparisons to former New York Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly. A native of Evansville, Indiana, Mattingly impressed Yankees brass with a strong work ethic and a compact swing, exceeding his standing as a nineteenth round draft pick. Mattingly would reach the major leagues for good during the 1983 season and proceed to produce six consecutive seasons with either All-Star or MVP consideration. Mattingly’s 145 RBI 1985 season would result in the last MVP season for the pinstripes until Alex Rodriguez in 2007. Mattingly would prove to be the lone bright spot for a club slowly fading in the division standings. Hall of Fame dreams appeared destined but acute back trouble began to affect his play starting in the 1987 season. The throbbing pain and discomfort in his back would erode his power and by 1990 Mattingly hit just five home runs in 428 at bats. Mattingly would learn to adapt to his shortcomings, reinventing himself as a stellar defensive first baseman with a keen batting eye. Mattingly’s transformation would enable him to withstand six more major league seasons. In 1995, Donnie Baseball would play in his first and only postseason, batting to a .417/.440/.708 slash line, ignoring his back trouble for an opportunity at the World Series, which never arrived. Despite Mattingly’s best efforts to adjust to his ailments, he was unable to reach the peaks and valleys of his initial big league seasons when Cooperstown appeared to be a forgone conclusion.
Like Don Mattingly, David Wright is at a crossroads in his career. The days of hitting 30 home runs and knocking in 100 runs appear to be over. His ability to lead by example both on and off the field with the promise of a burgeoning farm system beginning to translate to the big league level is likely his greatest asset. Plate selectivity continues to be strong and a ceiling of two wins above replacement parallel Mattingly’s final seasons. With Wright temporarily downsized, the Mets will turn to the unproven triumvirate of Eric Campbell, Ruben Tejada, and Danny Muno to hold down the fort until reinforcements on the open market become available, assuming Wright misses significant time. Though rumors of Ben Zobrist and Casey McGehee might tickle the fancy of Mets fans, Alderson maintains that few options are available at this juncture in the season with most teams still in contention and three quarters of the schedule left to play. The price of greatness is fragile in result and costly in investment. Years of developing the next talent can have a rapid downside, usually unexpected with marginalized production. The New York Mets are no stranger in their history to limited production at the third base position and in an unintended nod to tradition will rely heavily on their young pitching headlined by Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard to symbolically replace Wright’s contributions and affirm the Mets strengths, while hoping better days are to come for their franchise third baseman entering the latter portion of his career.