This is red meat for starving sports pages. On a Tuesday morning in mid-November, we are equidistant from football past and football to come, and there's only so many column inches you can devote to the Nets holding a closed-door meeting. Under such circumstances, the news that Robinson Cano's people met with the Mets is heady stuff. That one of his "people" is newly minted sports agent Jay-Z increases the sex appeal ten-fold.
In truth, the "news" is a lot of style draped over little substance. For one thing, assuming the Mets will spend at all this winter (an assumption that grows dimmer each day), Cano is out of their price range. More importantly, the Mets–Jay-Z dinner is stamped from a template used by other Yankee free agents in recent years: When negotiations grind to a halt, use the Mets to get to the Yankees.
This gives a starved sports media something to write about, which then gives the WFAN contingent of the fan bases something to yell about on the air, which gives the media even more to write about, thus creating a feedback loop that, if maintained carefully, can power us all until spring training starts.
Case in point: Jorge Posada became a free agent after the 2007 season, and it was assumed that the catcher would return to the Yankees, but the team was slow to negotiate. Suddenly, the Mets' interest in signing him appeared with greater frequency in the back pages. According to reports at the time, Omar Minaya was interested in giving the catcher a four-year deal, and might have been willing to ink him to a five-year deal if that's what it took to land him. That seems simultaneously insane—it would have signed Posada through the 2012 season, a year after he retired in our own reality—and quintessentially Minaya-esque.
When Minaya had lunch with Posada at Le Cirque (Le Cirque, guys!) it was considered a sign that things had gotten serious. Hours later, Posada reupped with the Yanks on a four-year, $52 million contract.
That same winter, Minaya made some noise about meeting with Alex Rodriguez's agent, Scott Boras, during the GM meetings. You may recall that during the 2007 World Series, A-Rod announced that he would opt out of his contract. He literally did this during the World Series; during the eighth inning of game four, as a matter of fact. A-Rod's decision to do this, and to announce it exactly when he did, could be described as polarizing only if it had put a single person on his side.
Initially, the Yankees refused to negotiate with Rodriguez, and Minaya sensed an opportunity to steal some of their thunder. However, a few days after Minaya publicly declared interest in the third baseman, A-Rod just as publicly announced (via his website) that he wished to remain a Yankee. He was wooed back to the Bronx by a 10-year, $275 million deal, with milestone-based incentives that pushed the potential value of the contract past the $300 million mark.
Of course, it's not always the Mets who get used in this fashion. If the Mets don't seem like a viable threat (which is usually the case), a Yankee can always go knock on Fenway's door. Mariano Rivera became a free agent after the 2010 season, and once again the Yankees were a tad slow in resigning him. Boston swooped in and offered Mo a two-year deal.
It was obvious to everyone and their mother that Rivera would never give up pinstripes for any team, let alone the Red Sox. Boston figured it wouldn't hurt to try anyway. Or rather, that trying wouldn't hurt them, but the Yankees instead. The gambit ultimately made the Yankees pony up more cash than they had to in order to retain the future Hall of Famer (two years, $30 million).
Another Yankee free agent tried a similar move way back in 1998. Following that season, star center fielder Bernie Williams was offered a five-year, $60 million contract. Knowing he could get more elsewhere, Williams rejected the deal and played the proverbial field. The Yanks seemed unmoved until Williams flirted with Boston. The Red Sox' interest was genuine in this case, and Williams came very close to going to Boston before finally resigning with the Yankees for seven years and $87.5 million.
But when he had to overpay to retain his star, George Steinbrenner didn't blame Boston so much as he did the Mets. They had just signed Mike Piazza to a seven year, $91 million contract, a deal that, in The Boss's eyes, inflated the free agent market. "''I think that all of baseball has been a bit shocked," Steinbrenner sniffed in reference to the Piazza contract. "I hear that others are quite upset." It was a classic bit of Steinbrenner-ese, to conflate the feelings of "all of baseball" with his own, and to be blind to the irony of criticizing another team's "reckless" spending.
Of course, no move works all the time. Johnny Damon's unrequited love the Mets after the 2009 season didn't get the Yanks to bite. But we'll call him the exception that proves the rule.
Jay-Z is new to the agent game, but he's a quick study who's picked up on this rule: If you want to talk to the Yankees, it might help to talk to the Mets first.