It was four years ago that Pedro Martinez was lured to New York by the Mets, a $53 million check stuffed in his pocket. Pedro wasn't just a free-agent prize; to the Mets he was The One.
Now, 32 wins and no world championships later, it's fair to ask: Was Pedro really worth the money? Not if the Mets are honest with themselves. Despite the projected success, Martinez broke down just as the Red Sox predicted after 2005 and was unable to deliver a single pennant, let alone a Series ring.
That's the crossroads at which ownership stands today, as the Wilpon family, which owns the team, mulls an overture from their aging right-hander. The 37-year-old Martinez wants another contract with the Mets, delivering a message through his agent that he's been working out obsessively, ready to dismiss the ghosts of '08.
Fern Cuza might be talking a good game for his client, but the Mets aren't about to forget how quickly their investment in Pedro dried up, especially this past September. He went 0-3 while the Mets were being caught and passed by the Phillies, ending the season with a 5-6 record, the first sub.-500 campaign in a full season of his career, and a 5.61 ERA.
That's hardly the way the Mets expected Pedro to play out his contract -- not after being lured away from the world champion Red Sox in 2004 following a four-game sweep of the Cardinals. Boston had just ended an 86-year Series curse but, tellingly, the euphoria didn't carry over into the negotiations with Martinez. The Red Sox worried about his durability -- his shoulder, in particular -- hesitating just long enough to allow the Mets the chance to both overpay and over-commit.
Plucking away Martinez was an enormous public-relations coup, but today the Mets' hierarchy admits Pedro fell short of their expectations. "We thought we'd get three [good] years from him," one senior official said. "Turns out we got 2½."
Even that's a generous assessment, considering Martinez spent long stretches on the disabled list in each of his past three seasons with the Mets. Pedro was terrific in 2005, winning 15 games, striking out 208 and posting a league-leading 0.95 WHIP. His dominance rolled over into early 2006, when he was 5-1 through May, allowing just 39 hits in 71 innings. But then came the first of two stints on the DL that season, and the old Pedro never returned.
Of course, Carlos Beltran had joined the Mets by then, and Pedro's supporters say, injured or not, he was the reason: If Martinez hadn't given the Mets instant credibility by taking his career to Shea, Beltran -- and later Billy Wagner and Johan Santana -- would never have ended up as Mets.
No doubt Martinez made the Mets respectable -- his arrival coincided with a 12-win surge from 2004-05 -- but the realists in the organization know Beltran's decision to sign with the Mets had less to do with Pedro than it did with money.
"We were the highest bidders," is how one insider put it. Indeed, no one got close to the seven-year, $119 million deal the Mets dropped in front of Beltran. But even after he was entering the final round of negotiations, Beltran still wasn't sold; agent Scott Boras secretly told the Yankees the center fielder would accept less money if the Bombers would make an offer.
So much for Pedro's recruiting powers. The driving force of the Mets' renaissance has been the Wilpon family's willingness to outbid the market for star players. That's why GM Omar Minaya is moving slowly on renewing ties with Martinez this off-season.
No one is saying Pedro's career with the Mets is necessarily over; the Mets are, after all, facing a shortage at the back end of their rotation, especially if they lose Oliver Perez to free agency.
But with much of the $53 million they spent on Pedro having turned to vapor, the Mets would prefer a more realistic re-enlistment -- say one year for $2 million, with performance incentives that could net Martinez $8 million to $10 million.
Would Pedro accept an 85 percent cut in guaranteed pay? Not likely, but the Mets are at least keeping the door open for him. They'll need 120-140 innings from their No. 5 starter, and might just trust Martinez with that responsibility over a rookie like Jon Niese -- at the right price.
Truth is, no one holds Pedro personally responsible for the lack of production. Unlike Carl Pavano, who was practically called a fraud by his Yankees teammates, the Mets universally respected Martinez, if not for his National League contributions, then the swagger he brought as an American League conqueror.
Before his very first start with the Mets in 2005, facing the Reds in Cincinnati, Pedro sent a powerful message. After finishing his warm-up session in the bullpen, the right-hander made sure to walk slowly in front of the Reds' dugout. It was an outrageous display of trespassing, if not arrogance -- most pitchers would have steered clear, choosing to cut across the infield -- but Martinez wanted the Reds to know the day would belong to him, protocol be damned.
He made good on that opening salvo, too, striking out 12 in six innings. Pedro spent most of the summer toying with National League hitters, making the Red Sox's caution look foolish. But the dividend didn't last long.
By the time his contract with the Mets was coming to an end, Martinez couldn't win the big games anymore. He spent so much effort nibbling corners, changing speeds, it was almost painful to watch him pitch. It seemed like the future Hall of Famer couldn't even get out of the first inning, as the NL batted .375 against him in the opening frame.
All this while the Mets lost Game 7 of the 2006 league championship series against the Cardinals, then blew first-place September leads in both 2007 and '08. You couldn't blame the Wilpons for revisiting Pedro's $53 million contract and asking themselves: Where did the money go?
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.