David Wright’s future should include the Hall of Fame, not the Colorado Rockies

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David Wright. (mlb.com)
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David Wright is it.

As the owners of the New York Mets struggle to pay even for a full slate of minor league teams, the major league team has already been stripped of most of the stand-out players fans have gotten used to seeing. Within the past five months, Carlos Beltran, Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Reyes have all left for financial reasons of one kind or another.

And then there's Wright, who turned 29 on Tuesday. He's easily the longest-tenured Met, having debuted in 2004. The remainder of the top-five seniority list is disappointing: Mike Pelfrey, Johan Santana (who general manager Sandy Alderson acknowledged recently may not be ready for Opening Day), Daniel Murphy and Jon Niese. The latter two have been part of trade talks all winter.

So it appears that as long as he remains a Met—and he's signed through 2012, with an option for 2013—Wright will be The Reason to Come to Citi Field. The Mets and others have repeatedly expressed the idea that if Wright is traded, it won't happen this winter, under the theory that fans can stomach losing one franchise great in Reyes, but not two of them.

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What is remarkable about Wright is that despite playing at an elite level, and doing so in New York, his offensive excellence has actually been hidden by the crushing failures the team has experienced during his playing career, first on the field with late-season collapses in 2007 and 2008, then the non-stop financial problems caused by Fred Wilpon and his partners investing with Bernie Madoff.

Among third basemen through age 28, David Wright is seventh all-time in OPS+ with 134. That's not seventh all-time among Mets third basemen—that's seventh among all third basemen in M.L.B. history. The only six ahead of him are Eddie Mathews, Frank (Home Run) Baker, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Chipper Jones and Mike Schmidt. That's five Hall of Famers and in Jones, a clear sixth. The man just behind Wright, Ron Santo, just got elected to the Hall of Fame as well.

It's often remarked that Wright is in some kind of premature decline. And sure, facts are facts: Wright was a star from 2004-2008, but in the past three years—since Citi Field opened—he's been relatively pedestrian.

But let's put his performance in context. Wright's numbers have dipped in 2009-2011. His 139 OPS+ from 2004-2008 gave way to a 124 over the last three campaigns. But despite adjusting to a new home park, battling a broken back that caused him to slump through much of 2011, and even returning from a beaning late in the 2009 season, the below-his-own-standards Wright has been, by most other standards, solid.

His 2009-2011 were his age 26-28 seasons, generally the peak for most players. So that drop-off in offensive productivity lands Wright in the 20th spot all-time among M.L.B. third basemen. He hasn't been inner-circle Hall of Fame good, but he's still among the best couple of dozen hitters to ever play the position—in his down years.

But now the Mets face a very different question than whether Wright has been an elite player at third base so far. It is time to ask what the Mets can expect from Wright moving forward. Is he the rare player whose best seasons were behind him by age 25? Or are the difficult circumstances he faced over the past three years the only thing keeping him from a return to his Hall of Fame track?

Looking ahead, if Wright is to return to his 139 OPS+ levels of 2004-2008, he'll be in extremely select company. Only Mike Schmidt, Alex Rodriguez (who famously moved from shortstop to third base for Derek Jeter), George Brett and Wade Boggs produced that well at third base from ages 29-32. In all four cases, they improved their production over what they'd posted through age 28, or in Brett's case, simply maintained. In all four cases, that defies baseball's aging curve.

Of the other three third basemen who'd been better than Wright, ever, Chipper Jones also improved from age 29-32 relative to his OPS+ through age 28. Frank Baker actually retired for a season after turning 28, came back after a year layoff, and was never the same. Only Eddie Mathews among these elite third basemen followed the typical aging curve, with an OPS+ of 153 through age 28, 138 from ages 29-32.

Though it may not matter if the team needs to deal Wright to pay bills, the decision that general manager Sandy Alderson should be facing about David Wright is this one: Is Wright not shaping up to be one of the greatest third basemen ever? If so, he ought to be a New York Met for many years to come, and not merely until a rebound start to 2012 improves his trade value.