By Brad Kallet
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Spring training is barely a week old, but it’s been so far, so good in Mets camp in the early going.
I’m not necessarily saying that guys are in the best shapes of their lives, taking great cuts or feeling strong after long toss. Rather, I mean that everybody is present and accounted for, in a positive state of mind and … gulp … not injured. (Please don’t blame me if someone tears their ACL tomorrow.)
Not a ton of news comes out of spring training. If it does, it’s probably bad news. But positivity has been emanating from Port St. Lucie ever since pitchers and catchers reported on Feb. 12.
Yoenis Cespedes, fresh off signing a four-year, $110 million deal in the offseason, seems as relaxed, content and focused as ever. David Wright threw a baseball for the first time since June. Zack Wheeler, who hasn’t pitched in a major-league game since 2014 and felt tenderness in his right elbow during a recent bullpen session, threw off a mound on Sunday.
Yep, all is peachy in South Florida.
Then came the encouraging news — or discouraging, depending on how you feel about him as a player — on Monday morning that the Mets and second baseman Neil Walker were closing in on an extension. As the day wore on, the prospects of a deal getting done began to get bleaker. By mid-afternoon, the New York Post’s Mike Puma reported that the “contract extension discussions are probably dead.”
According to Newsday’s Marc Carig, the extension, which was expected to be in the neighborhood of $40 million over three years, “hit a snag” when general manager Sandy Alderson wanted the second baseman to restructure his $17.2 million salary for 2017.
A deal could still get done at some point, but it looks like Walker, who accepted the Mets’ qualifying offer in November and will be eligible for free agency after the season, will be playing on a one-year contract for the foreseeable future.
The veteran, who turned 31 in September, clearly wants to be in Queens for the long haul after spending the first seven years of his career in his hometown, Pittsburgh.
“There is no other place that I’d want to be,” Walker told reporters last week when asked about a possible long-term pact. “Nothing has come to fruition just yet, but that doesn’t mean something won’t happen.”
Walker, who was acquired for Jon Niese last offseason, was very productive in his first season with the Mets. He put up sparkling numbers for a middle infielder, batting .282 with 23 homers and 55 RBIs in 113 games. He was also an improvement defensively over Daniel Murphy, who struggled to turn double plays and was error-prone.
Walker’s season was cut short in early September when he decided to undergo back surgery to repair a herniated disc.
Spring training is the most optimistic time of the year for clubs, and it’s probably not the best for management and players to talk dollars and cents. Yes, it’s part of the business, but I would imagine that Walker is feeling some modicum of disappointment, if not resentment, that a long-term deal isn’t in place. Similarly, though Alderson and his team have been down this road innumerable times in the past, they’re likely also frustrated that the two sides remain apart.
We’ve learned that Alderson, a former Marine, has the perfect temperament for his front office position. With a stone-cold poker face, he plays his dealings close to the vest and makes a point not to let business distract from the stated goal of building a cohesive, championship team. He can be counted on to act appropriately in awkward instances such as these.
Walker, too, is a humble, understated man who doesn’t draw much attention to himself, and his track record suggests that he won’t let this setback interfere with his play on the field or become an unnecessary story in the clubhouse. Even though Walker has only been in New York for a year, he has assumed a leadership position on a team that features many young, fairly inexperienced players. To that end, he needs to put this episode behind him, or at least to the side of him, let his agent attend to his business interests, help keep camp light and focus on the task at hand.
For all we know he’s been doing just that, staying behind the scenes and out of the way as he prepares for a new campaign.
By all accounts, players are brimming with confidence right now and camp is breeding an atmosphere of winning. It’s imperative that it stays that way.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet