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The Real Problem With The Alex Cora Deal

Well we all knew this was coming; the writing was on the wall, and it read: "ELMER WUZ HERE." Out of resignation for the inevitable, I recounted the positives of Alex Cora--in short, plate discipline and the chance of non-embarrassing fielding. Many people will abuse his UZR/150 stats and refuse to recognize the role injury played in slowing his bat down, which is too bad--there are enough reasons to hate this signing, while giving Alex Cora his meager dues. Basically, he's a decent enough utility middle infielder, who should only start in emergencies, but worth a major league spot on the depth chart. Yes, that player should make league minimum or only slightly more. And while Cora could feasibly be worth $2M next year, he is basically all downside. Still, I said I wouldn't complain if the Mets signed him for $2M. But I didn't say anything about bonuses and vesting options.

Contract incentives are useful in three situations: 1. rewarding a franchise player, 2. enticing a highly sought-after free agent, or 3. mitigating against the risk of an injured player breaking down. Number 1 obviously doesn't apply and no one can possible convince me number 2 is true. Situation #3 works when you have a player like Rich Harden, whose value increases greatly with every 20 innings he gives you. If last season taught us anything, it's that  the more we see Alex Cora, the more screwed we are. As an everyday starter last season, Cora was totally exposed, and his performance steadily got worse. The fact that the Mets could even foresee a situation where Alex Cora gets 80-110 starts, proves they are totally incapable of planning for the very real scenario of Jose Reyes' getting injured, and would be perfectly content to forfeit the season. 

A 2 million dollar vesting option? Why do the Mets want to be committed to 35-year-old Alex Cora at any price, much less 2-mil? If Alex Cora starts 80+ games in 2010, it means one of two things: 1. Jose Reyes was injured for a prolonged period and the Mets were too incompetent to replace him, or 2. the Mets were too incompetent to sell high on Luis Castillo and he imploded. In either case, prior to 2011, a massive restructuring of the middle infield depth chart would be required, in which Jose Reyes could no longer be considered a starter, or a new secondbaseman would have to be signed. 35-year-old Alex Cora, with a guaranteed roster spot and  $2MM salary, would be massive dead weight, and his contract would likely force the Mets to either release him and eat the money or give him partial playing time. Next offseason could be a heck of a mess for the new GM. 

The defenders of this deal have harped on two tellingly stupid points: he's a great clubhouse guy and he won't prevent the Mets from signing other free agents. The second statement can easily be refuted by: yes he will! No, Alex Cora will probably not stop the Mets from signing Matt Holliday if they really want him, but if that's your conception of free agency and the Mets budget, then you're worse than Minaya. Three million is three million; or seven comparable players on league minimum; Omar Vizquel and Adam Everett; a handful of intriguing minor league free agents, like Ruben Gotay, a utility infielder better than Alex Cora; or every draft pick the Mets failed to sign last year. 

His benefit to the clubhouse is all fine and good, and believe me, I'm the biggest sucker in the world for players who seem to have fun and energize his teammates. No one honestly believes that stuff is the real difference between a good team and a bad, though, do they? The one and only time I watched Mets Weekly (no SNY in TN), I remember the host prodding Cora with a painfully obvious line of questions about his role in the clubhouse, his relationship with Dustin Pedroia, etc.. It seemed as if she hoped Cora would rip the microphone out her hand, make some absurd statements confirming his importance to the team, and in one fell swoop assuage the collective fears of Mets fans whose subconsciouses were bothered by the nagging "maybe he's just bad." Instead, Cora made the truthful reply about how the self-assured Pedroia didn't really want to hear his crap at first, though they eventually formed a bond. Then, maybe a little conscious of what the host's questions insinuated about his skill, frankly said (and I'm not sure this is the exact quote), "I'm not here to make friends. I'm here to win ballgames." Another winning statement from a winning player! No one saw the irony. 

But don't fret, compared to this negotiating gem, I think the worst is yet to come. Alex Cora is a decent enough bench piece caught in the crossfire of a team's continued violation of its fanbase's trust. I'm still waiting for the word on whether the Dessens money is guaranteed; I've got a wicked rant ready for that one.