Time for Mets to shift focus to Reyes

As it turns out, the New York Mets put their money on the wrong guy five summers back. They gave Jose Reyes a relatively short and employer-friendly contract three days before turning over one of those face-of-the-franchise deals to David Wright.

Reyes accepted four years and $23.35 million before Wright scored six years and $55 million. Right here, right now, life would be so much easier for the Mets if they could put one deal in place of the other as easily as their old sugar daddy, Bernie Madoff, moved some poor soul's life savings from this account to that one.

In Reyes the Mets would have baseball's most dynamic player under their control for another two years, enough time, perhaps, for Irving Picard or David Einhorn to hit the eject button that sends Fred Wilpon flying out of Flushing for good.

In Wright the Mets would have a pending free agent who might return to a counterfeit contender a key rebuilding piece before the July 31 trade deadline, assuming this really good kid and very good player -- but not a superstar, you know -- gets back on the field between now and then.

Only that's fantasy baseball, just another game the Mets cannot win. Now they have to confront the grim reality of a Reyes departure and a fan base revolt that would leave Citi Field about as empty in August and September as Madison Square Garden is in May and June.

So even as they prepare to slash tens of millions from their $140 million-and-change payroll, the Mets need to sign Reyes long term and help pay for his significant raise -- in the short term -- by thanking Wright for the memories and trading him to an owner ready to accept him as a Pippen, not a Jordan.

Reyes? He's proving to be a certified Jordan and, at 28, a worthy centerpiece of a Sandy Alderson overhaul designed to make the Mets leaner, meaner and, ultimately, better equipped to field a credible winner after the Madoff war draws its final drop of blood.

Money is the problem -- of course it is. The Mets might cut as much as $40 million in payroll in 2012 as Wilpon fights to retain control of the team.

With Reyes earning $11 million this season, and expecting about a $9 million average raise on a six- or seven-year deal, Wilpon can't count on Madoff's Monopoly money to make the numbers work.

The good news is Carlos Beltran's $18.5 million will be coming off the books, as will Francisco Rodriguez's $11.5 million. Beltran will almost certainly be traded sometime next month, and Alderson has to make K-Rod's $17.5 million vesting option disappear.

But the Mets need more available cash, as in a lot, to drastically cut costs while making Reyes a $20 million shortstop. And this is where Wright's $15 million wage in 2012 and $16 million club option in 2013 come into play.

This is where Mets fans need to root hard for Wright and the doctor scheduled to examine his fractured back on Friday, root hard for the third baseman to be cleared to do a lot more than take ground balls from his knees. These meetings never go the Mets' way, not when they often end with the attending physician mysteriously adding weeks or months to existing timetables.

For once, the team needs a favorable bounce. Wright has to return to the lineup ASAP and strongly suggest he can be the durable 100-RBI man he was across five of his six previous seasons.

Yes, there will be a market for a healthy Wright, even if a trade wipes out his 2013 club option and makes him a free agent at the end of next year. Wright is a young (28), talented, low-maintenance credit to his profession.

He is also an athlete in dire need of change. His blissful marriage with the Mets ended the minute Wilpon decided it was a good idea to embarrass Wright -- along with Reyes and Beltran -- in the pages of The New Yorker. The first chance Wright had to respond in person to members of the news media, he spent 15 minutes and 32 seconds at his locker passive-aggressively refusing to speak Fred Wilpon's name.

Wright forever shouldered the burdens of a Charlie Brown franchise by putting a happy face and hopeful voice on any and all concerns, often doing so at functions he attended in Wilpon's name. Those days are over.

But this isn't about ending a relationship that looks like an X-ray of Wright's back. It's about dealing a strong player at third in order to keep a better player at a more important position.

Trading Wright means clearing $31 million over two years for Reyes, and perhaps adding a prospect (along with the potential prospects obtained for Beltran and K-Rod) to a farm system widely believed to be in a bad way. By taking this path, the Mets would keep the one player who sells tickets (Reyes) while also showing educated customers they're planning for brighter days ahead.

"I actually think the Mets also need to trade Jose Reyes or take the draft picks when he leaves as a free agent," argued one smart person in baseball who is monitoring the Mets' moves, or lack thereof.

"This isn't basketball where you sign Dwight Howard and hope for the best. The Mets have so many problems financially, and problems all over the field, and such a bad farm system, I can't see how they can afford to lock up $100 million in Reyes."

In truth, the Mets can't afford not to. Reyes might be the most valuable player in the National League. He is homegrown and still young enough to join the likes of Ike Davis, Ruben Tejada and Dillon Gee as future gatekeepers of the post-Madoff Mets -- a team Alderson might mold into a real contender that trumps the artificial, 35-37 one now drifting aimlessly among the wild-card pack.

So the Mets should take a do-over on their left-side-of-the-infield choices from the summer of 2006. They should put their money on Reyes, and pray Wright gets healthy enough to land on someone else's payroll.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."