In a narrow sense, the recent announcement that New York Mets captain David Wright needed surgery — thus ending his latest rehab stint — was just another line item in what was already an absurdly injury-wrecked, grossly disappointing Mets season.
Wright’s setback, however, was more a symbolic blow for the Mets than anything else. The once-great third baseman hadn’t played a game since May 2016 and turns 35 in December, so he probably wasn’t going to add much production on the field, at least not anytime soon. But Wright is also the top position player in franchise history according to wins above replacement (WAR),1 and the Mets’ second-best player ever, period (behind Tom Seaver). He’s just the fourth captain in club history and was once on the shortlist of the most popular players in the game.
As difficult as it is to remember now, a healthy Wright was among baseball’s upper echelon of players for a very long time. He was also easily on track to become a Hall of Famer — the rare member to spend his entire career with the Mets, who have a tendency to either pick up HOFers mid-career or jettison them too soon.2 This is not how the future was supposed to look for both Wright and the Mets.
In the decade from 2005 (Wright’s first full MLB season) to 2014 (his last full season), only four position players — Albert Pujols, Chase Utley, Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre — put up more WAR than Wright. Looking at primary third basemen since 1901,3 Wright also ranked ninth in total WAR through age 31 (Wright’s age in 2014). Even more so than his longtime infield partner Jose Reyes, Wright was widely viewed as the kind of ballplayer that a franchise could build around for years to come.
Certainly that’s what the Mets were thinking when they extended Wright’s contract by eight years and $138 million in November 2012.4 At the time, it was the 17th-biggest contract in baseball history, but Wright’s future appeared to warrant the investment. Here’s a list of Wright’s most similar historical players through 2012, according to The Baseball Gauge, along with how many WAR each ended up producing over the following five seasons:
|WAR BY AGE|
|RK||PLAYER||POS||SIM SCORE||THRU 29||30||31||32||33||34|
A good number of Wright’s top comparables lived up to their lofty expectations as franchise cornerstones. For instance, the longtime Phillies and Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen — Wright’s most similar player through age 29 — wound up producing excellent seasons well into his 30s, basically matching the career benchmarks for Hall of Fame third basemen (Rolen has 70.2 WAR; Hall members at the position average 71 WAR). And Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves — Wright’s fourth-most similar player through 29 — had an even more impressive run in his 30s. From age 30 to 36, Jones never produced fewer than 3.5 WAR in a season, and from age 37 onward, he never had fewer than 2.2 WAR.5
And then there’s the still-active legend on Wright’s list of comparables: Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers. Beltre, who recently collected his 3,000th career hit, has remained extremely productive deep into his second major-league decade, helping power Texas to four playoff appearances in the last seven seasons. Speaking of active players, even 31-year-old Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria has started his thirties in a way that suggests he could join Beltre, Rolen and Jones in Cooperstown someday.
Wright, however, has seen his stardom put on hold ever since he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in 2015. After that and several more injuries, Wright finds himself pushed significantly off of the HOF path:6
Wright isn’t the only recent third baseman who appeared to be on a HOF trajectory, but then fell off quickly heading into his 30s. Like Wright, Eric Chavez was supposed to anchor the Oakland Athletics’ infield for years to come — and like the Mets, the A’s chose to extend their star third baseman over their star shortstop (with Miguel Tejada playing the role of Reyes). But in the middle of his prime, Chavez started battling a seemingly endless procession of neck, shoulder and back ailments. Shockingly, he ended up generating just 3.5 WAR from age 29 on.
Some star third basemen even begin to drop off like Wright and Chavez, but then manage to recover their form. Ryan Zimmerman of the Washington Nationals was an All-Star with multiple Silver Slugger Awards early in his career, but suffered from injuries and mediocre play as he neared age 30. After a miserable 2016 performance that rated below the replacement level, it wouldn’t have surprised anyone if Zimmerman’s days of being a productive major leaguer were over. And yet, Zimmerman bounced back this season with a vintage performance, particularly at the plate.
Perhaps Zimmerman’s rebirth can provide hope of a similar renaissance for Wright and the Mets. Just last Thursday, Wright told reporters that he still hopes to return to the major leagues, perhaps as soon as next season. But if Wright wants to contribute anything going forward, he’ll have to contend with history: Since 1901, only three position players — Ken Griffey Jr., Arky Vaughan and Richie Ashburn — produced at least 40 WAR through age 31, fewer than 1.0 WAR per season from ages 32 to 34, and still came back to generate at least 2.0 WAR from age 35 onward. (For his part, Wright had 50.7 WAR through age 31 and 0.3 WAR per season over the next three years.)
Even if Wright does buck that trend, he’ll be a long way from the path that once seemed so certain for him and for the Mets. More likely, he’ll serve as a cautionary tale that even the most probable of future Hall of Famers can get derailed on the path to Cooperstown.
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