Mets must empty pockets for Reyes

NEW YORK -- Alone at his locker, preparing to resume his run at a staggering free-agent score, Jose Reyes studied the question the way he would measure a left-hander's pickoff move from first base.

Would you take a little less money than the highest competing bid to remain a New York Met?

Every hour, on the hour, Reyes has expressed his desire to finish his career as a Met, to be the kind of one-uniform lifer Derek Jeter has been in the Bronx. So before he returned from his hamstring injury Tuesday night and contributed two hits and brilliant glovework to the Mets' 4-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, Reyes was asked to put his future money where his current mouth is, and to declare whether he'd consider a hometown discount to keep his marriage intact.

The shortstop paused and tilted his head before he let this tricky grounder pass safely into the outfield grass.

"It's too soon to talk about that," Reyes answered. "We need to wait and see what's going to happen. There's still a lot of baseball left, and we don't know what's going to happen in the future."

No, Reyes wasn't about to give his agent a coronary and hurt his leverage with an owner, Fred Wilpon, who used the pages of The New Yorker to cite his history of leg injuries and to mock his pursuit of Carl Crawford money ($142 million) in the fall.

But before heading into their one and only postseason game -- the high-stakes game of negotiating a new deal for the 28-year-old Reyes -- the Mets need to understand something:

They'll have to be the highest bidders for Reyes to keep him, even if that means making an offer that trumps the Crawford contract with Boston and leaves Wilpon looking like a fool.

"Reyes keeps saying he wants to stay with the Mets," said one executive in contact with the team, "but then he says he won't negotiate with them during the season? That doesn't make any sense. I think he's going for the biggest offer he gets in free agency, and I think a lot of people feel the same way."

Reyes is a likable and approachable figure, a star who is quick with a smile. His demeanor likely spared him some criticism for rejecting Sandy Alderson's attempt to open contract talks last month; Reyes claimed he feared the negotiations might amount to a distraction.

Only the bigger distraction is the possibility Reyes will win the National League batting title (his average is .355), and then land with a credible contender that doesn't need to slash payroll or sweat a potential nine-figure loss in the Bernie Madoff case.

"I've always said I want to stay here," Reyes repeated Tuesday. "This is New York, and who doesn't want to play in New York? I feel comfortable here.

"But this is a business. … Right now, me and my agent don't discuss anything about my contract in the future."

They'll have plenty to talk about soon enough. In his comeback game, Reyes delivered a multi-hit performance for a league-leading 44th time and repelled a gathering Cardinals threat in the eighth.

With one out and two on, Reyes made a diving stop in the hole on Jon Jay's grounder to save a run. The next hitter, Albert Pujols, stepped into the box with the bases loaded and battled Bobby Parnell and his 100-mph fastball before sending a slider bouncing over the mound.

Reyes fielded the ball, stepped on the bag and hurdled the oncoming Jay before firing to first and tumbling onto the dirt. As Parnell watched Reyes complete this double play, the reliever said he "felt like a kid at Christmas."

The shortstop knew the feeling. "I was able to move around very good in the field today," Reyes said, "so that's a really good sign."

He ran from first to third in the fifth and later admitted, "My confidence is not there yet." But Reyes reported no pain and plenty of gain.

"I was testing my leg in a lot of different ways," he said.

Reyes had reason to look and sound relieved. His hamstring strain inspired talk that his pattern of leg problems could cost him millions in free agency.

In fact, his injury might've aided the Mets' cause. The more reasonable Reyes' price is, the better the odds that Alderson can persuade Wilpon to meet it.

Tuesday night, when asked to assess Reyes' performance, Terry Collins said, "I've got to be careful. I can get myself in trouble."

The manager could get himself in trouble with his bosses by elevating his shortstop's worth.

Collins couldn't help himself. Before the game, the manager agreed that Reyes' skill set was a perfect match for Citi Field's dimensions and dismissed concerns that a long-term commitment to a speed player isn't as wise as a long-term commitment to a power player.

"Jose is so young," Collins said, "you know he's got seven or eight more years that he'll still be able to play at that level. At that time I'll be home and I'll let somebody else worry about it."

At 62, scarred from past failures in Houston, Anaheim and Japan, Collins knows this is his last stand. He wants to win or lose next year and beyond with Reyes batting leadoff.

"When the season's over I'll tell Sandy what Jose means to the club, his impact on the team," Collins said. "The rest is up to Sandy. I don't ever get in on contracts.

"I understand there's a business side to it, but in my heart I think Jose is going to be a Met. I hope I walk in next February and this guy walks in the door behind me."

To make that happen, the Mets need to offer their signature star more cash than any other team. Reyes will fight for every last nickel to finish his career in New York, just like the shortstop in the Bronx did last fall.

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