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On Tuesday, Aug. 31 at Citi Field, Mets players sat for a meeting with team president Sandy Alderson, as tense as they had been all year.
Two days earlier, Alderson had released a statement condemning Javier Baez for his comments about a thumbs-down gesture being directed at fans. Francisco Lindor and Kevin Pillar had also made the gesture. Players were upset with public criticism recently levied at them by the front office. The meeting had a chance to combust.
But according to a person in the room, Baez spoke up to say that the gesture had been his idea, and that no other players knew its meaning or were implicated by his comments.
Players and staff alike saw this as a moment of accountability and leadership that not only made the meeting more productive, but helped to bond Baez and the organization to one another.
He told others in follow-up conversations that the gesture was simply meant to take pressure off his struggling teammates, and that his public comments had, regrettably, gotten all twisted up. Mets brass understood.
That, and Baez’s outstanding production and willingness to play through injury instigated a remarkable turnaround. Now, Baez is regarded similarly by many with the Mets as he was by the Cubs: As a tough player, a natural leader, an elite defender, and a flawed but thrilling hitter.
On the day of thumbgate, it was a near-certainty that Baez would soon be a former Met. Now, according to league sources, there is a real chance that Baez and the Mets will agree early in the offseason on a contract extension that would install him at second base for years to come.
Baez could still hit the open market and take his place among the class of elite free agent shortstops that includes Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, and Corey Seager. If he does, the Yankees are expected to be a crosstown suitor, because they were one of the most aggressive teams in pursuit of Baez at this year’s trade deadline, according to sources.
But if the Mets make a serious offer early, Baez would be inclined to stay. Some free agencies, especially those of star players, drag on until March. This one does not have to.
At the core of this are the authentic personal relationships that Baez enjoys with Lindor and owner Steve Cohen. The friendship with Lindor predates Baez’s time with the Mets, but grew to include work together in the batting cage that both considered key to their strong performances late in the season.
Baez is also said to be a believer in Cohen’s vision of the Mets as a big-market behemoth, hungry for a championship within a few years. The two enjoyed several conversations; when the season ended, the team was grateful for Baez’s hard work and accountability, and Baez appreciated the Mets’ ambition and handling of him after thumbgate.
Whether or not the warm feelings end in a quick deal depends on the Mets and Baez’s ability to agree on a number. A commitment of $150-$200 million rarely comes without tough negotiation.
But this does not have to wait on the Mets selecting a new general manager. Whoever the team hires will arrive to an infrastructure already in place, from the owner to the president to the scouting and analytics teams. Baez has seen enough already to know that he enjoys life in Queens.
He and the Mets ended the season with a feeling of mutual affection that was hard to foresee just a month earlier.
If an offer comes next -- and according to sources, it has not yet -- we could have Hot Stove news sooner than usual.