A Tough Call on Reyes

As Jose Reyes continues to play the best baseball of his career, the question of how the Mets handle their star shortstop will become even more of a story. The basic question facing the Mets appears to be whether they should try to trade Reyes now while he is playing so well, but about to become a free agent, or whether they should commit to keeping their biggest star by offering a big multi-year contract either during this season or, as given the Mets preference for not negotiating during the season, after the season.

The Mets are a big market teams that in recent years has usually had one of the highest payrolls in baseball, so in most years the Mets would not seek to move a 28 year old star largely because he is about to become a free agent. This year is different because the Mets ownership is in something of a mess with the future very uncertain. However, ownership problems aside, the question facing the Mets about Reyes is not quite as simple as it seems. Both options, trading Reyes while his value is high and locking down their young shortstop with a long term contract, are not quite as good as they sound.

Even though Reyes has sustained his hot start into the middle of the season and has been an extremely effective and exciting offensive force this season, his trade value may be diminishing as the season progresses. Any team that acquires Reyes now would only be guaranteed to have him for about half a season as well as the post-season. If the Mets wait until the end of July to move Reyes, whoever acquires him will get even less time out of Reyes. Although Reyes could make an impact on a close playoff race and in the post-season, the field of teams that can use him will shrink as more teams find themselves out of the playoff hunt as the season progresses, and will be reluctant to part with players or prospects of real value for so little time from Reyes.

Because of the trouble they may encounter getting any value in return for Reyes, it would seem the wise thing for the Mets to do would be to seek to sign Reyes after the season to a long term contract. Reyes will likely seek to get a contract in excess of $20 million a year for six or seven years. This is not an unreasonable for a player of Reyes’ 2011 offensive ability, who plays a key defensive position.

There are always risks involved in long term contracts, but with regards to Reyes, the risk may be greater. This is somewhat due to Reyes history of combating injuries for much of his career. In 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010 Reyes lost parts of the season to injury. When he has been healthy he has generally been a strong offensive contributor, particularly for his age and position. However, his career numbers before this year of .286/.335/.434 for an OPS+ of 101 do not seem to be enough to earn a contract in the neighborhood of $150 million. His 335 stolen bases through 2010 make him somewhat more valuable, but not significantly so. By comparison, Derek Jeter has posted an OPS+ of 122 during his career until age 27 with comparable defensive numbers to Reyes.

If 2011 represents a genuine breakthrough for Reyes which can be sustained through a three to five year prime, the Mets should obviously sign him to a big contract, but if his 2011 is more of an aberration, than he is less likely to prove to be worth such a big contract. Even during this great year, Reyes continues to be a player who does not walk much, hits some but not many home runs and relies upon speed and batting average to generate most of his offensive value. These skills are prone to fluctuation and the effects of age particularly for players who demonstrate neither significant power nor patience at the plate. Most of the evidence suggests that Reyes’ sterling 2011 season has been due largely to an increase in his BABIP to .362 this year compared to .313 for his entire career. Reyes’ walk percentage has increased by 0.2% this year, but that is a very small change. His home run rate has actually declined to 0.8% compared to 1.7% throughout his career. Teams should be very cautious reading too much into an increase in productivity based largely on BABIP, because there is a real likelihood that Reyes is just getting a little luckier this year with more hit balls landing between outfielders or just past infielders than in previous years.

Locking down the 2011 Jose Reyes for the next six years would be worth it at elite player costs, but may not be what the Mets would be getting. All players age and all signings involve risk, but the Mets, or any team looking at Reyes for the long term, must realize that they are pursuing a 28 year old shortstop having a career year who has never played at this level before 2011 and has had trouble staying healthy. Even if Reyes stays healthy, the likelihood of him regressing to his previous career numbers of an OPS+ in the 100-120 range, with declining speed and defense, is substantial. That is still a valuable player, but not a $20 million, or more, a year player.