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February 16, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Check, Call, Reyes, Fold?

by Jay Jaffe

On Sunday night here in New York City, I had the pleasure of showing off a shiny new copy of Baseball Prospectus 2011 on the Fox Sports Extra Show with Duke Castiglione (clip here). Over the course of our rapid-fire four-minute exchange, Castiglione—who had me on twice last season for similar discussions—quizzed me about what BP's PECOTA projections say about the likelihood of various key Yankees and Mets rebounding from subpar 2010 showings, among them Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and A.J. Burnett on the Yankees' side, and Jose Reyes and Jason Bay on the Mets.

On the topic of Reyes, Castiglione pointed out that not only is he in his contract year, but that his strengths and weaknesses don't make him a particularly strong fit given the recent regime change in Flushing. "Sandy Alderson, he's a big on-base percentage guy who doesn't value the stolen base as much. What do you think is going to happen there?" asked the host. I pointed out that our forecast wasn't particularly hopeful about Reyes returning to a star level in 2011, with a PECOTAfeaturing an OBP of .334, a point below his career mark.

Expanding upon that beyond the realm of live television, Reyes' weighted mean projection calls for a .275/.334/.407 line, this from a player entering his age-28 season—still in the midst of his prime—with a career line of .286/.335/.434. That's not horrible, by any stretch; taking his pitcher-friendly ballpark into account, Reyes is forecast for a .271 TAv. He was at .276 last year, 21 points above the major-league average shortstop at .255.

The problem is that Reyes' value is trending downward; he hasn't been nearly as productive over the past two years as he was in previous years, owing much to injury and illness. A hamstring strain knocked him out of action beyond late May in 2009, limiting him to just 36 games, while a thyroid imbalance cost him much of spring training in 2010 and shelved him for the first week of the season; later, an oblique strain hampered him just before the All-Star break, and again at the end of August and well into September. He played in 133 games, his second-lowest total of the past six seasons, and hit .282/.321/.428.

Reyes' raw rate stats over the last two years don't hold a candle to the ones he put up during his 2006-2008 heyday, though once you adjust for the impact of moving from Shea Stadium to CitiField, the difference isn't as big as it looks:

Years

AVG/OBP/SLG

TAv

WARP/yr

2006-08

.292/.355/.461

.290

6.1

2009-10

.282/.328/.421

.280

2.1

Owing to an 11-point dip in BABIP (.313 to .302) which one can chalk up to luck, the switch in ballparks, and MLB-wide falling levels of offense, Reyes has lost just a bit in the batting-average department, the equivalent of 10 hits per 162 games. He's lost much more in terms of plate discipline, with his unintentional walk rate falling from 7.6 percent to 5.7 percent, a loss of 15 unintentional passes (and five intentionals) per 162 games. He's also dropped from a prorated 68 steals at a 79 percent clip to 39 at a 76 percent clip. So in all, he's getting on base less frequently, advancing both himself and others less frequently, while showing significantly less durability than the 157 games per year he averaged in the 2006-2008 period. Owing as well to a dropoff in fielding, from 0 FRAA and a 100 Rate2in the earlier stretch to -14 FRAA and a 92 Rate2 in the later one, he's been just about one-third as valuable. PECOTA sees him rebounding only slightly in the field, to -5 FRAA and 2.4 WARP overall.

As noted on the broadcast, Reyes doesn't appear to be a particularly good fit for the Alderson regime given its emphasis on OBP and de-emphasis on the steal, though it's at least worth noting that Reyes has been successful enough in stealing (80 percent career) that he's not likely to be particularly curbed; Alderson admits that he's a big fan of the shortstop's speed.

The big danger for the coming season is that new manager Terry Collins is as beholden to keeping Reyes in the leadoff spot as the hapless Jerry Manuel was, even in the face of other options (a problem similarly faced by the other New York team). Reyes batted leadoff in 110 games for the Mets last year and got on base at a .333 clip in that role. Angel Pagan led off in 43 games, but was actually worse in that spot with a .323 OBP, even though that wasn't the case in 2009, when he got on base at a .358 clip in 77 games atop the lineup. PECOTA is actually even less sanguine about Pagan than it is about Reyes, forecasting a .279/.325/.392 line for a guy who's going into his age-29 season (albeit two days ahead of the age cutoff given his July 2 birthday) having hit .296/.344/.448 over the past two years while finally carving out a full-time job. Ouch.

With the exercise of his 2011 option for $11 million, Reyes is in the final year of what has become a five-year, $34.25 million deal. At roughly $5 million per marginal win, he's not a great bargain if he hits his mark of 2.4 WARP, and going forward, the question is whether it makes sense to re-sign him. Obviously, that decision depends in large part not only on Reyes' performance in the coming year but also that of his team, whose spending has been hamstrung by the Madoff situation as well as a dose of realism about their current payroll situation and their chances in an NL East where the Phillies and Braves are clearly stronger. A poor start could lead the Mets to explore trading Reyes in-season to save a few millions if they aren't bent on keeping him.

Then again, next winter's free agent market for shortstops isn't exactly brimming with talent, as I noted on the show. Of the 22 shortstops MLB Trade Rumors lists might make up next winter's class, very few look particularly palatable in the harsh light of the 2011 PECOTAs, and they'll all be a year older next year:

Player

Age

AVG/OBP/SLG

TAv

WARP

Rafael Furcal

33

.272/.340/.382

.265

2.8

Jose Reyes

28

.275/.334/.407

.271

2.4

Jimmy Rollins

32

.257/.316/.417

.261

2.1

J.J. Hardy

28

.261/.319/.414

.261

1.9

Marco Scutaro

35

.260/.335/.355

.252

1.5

Miguel Tejada

37

.269/.307/.378

.249

1.5

Jack Wilson

33

.249/.288/.325

.233

1.1

Edgar Renteria

35

.262/.317/.351

.246

0.9

Jamey Carroll

37

.256/.336/.311

.245

0.9

Omar Infante

29

.287/.338/.383

.261

0.9

Ramon Santiago

31

.250/.308/.336

.236

0.5

Craig Counsell

40

.239/.323/.323

.234

0.4

Ronny Cedeno

28

.250/.291/.369

.237

0.3

Jerry Hairston

35

.238/.295/.348

.242

0.3

Orlando Cabrera

36

.264/.307/.351

.237

0.2

Augie Ojeda

36

.245/.325/.327

.231

0.1

Yuniesky Betancourt

29

.259/.286/.385

.235

0.0

Nick Punto

33

.236/.313/.296

.226

0.0

Cesar Izturis

31

.247/.290/.304

.218

-0.1

Adam Everett

34

.219/.265/.294

.207

-0.3

John McDonald

36

.235/.261/.354

.216

-0.4

Reyes actually forecasts to have the second-highest WARP and the highest TAv of the bunch, and what becomes clear if you dig into the PECOTA spreadsheet is that this is a pretty grim time for shortstops in general, with only Hanley Ramirez (4.8 WARP), Troy Tulowitzki (4.7), Yunel Escobar (3.2), Furcal, and Stephen Drew (2.5) forecasting higher. Some of that is the system's inherent conservatism; only 10 first basemen are forecast to reach or exceed 2.5 WARP in 2011, followed by nine third basemen, seven right fielders, six catchers, five left fielders, four center fielders, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Among those possibilities, Furcal has a club option for 2012 which vests if he attains 600 plate appearances, Betancourt has a $6 million club option (you can stop laughing now), and Scutaro's mutual option with the Red Sox is worth $6 million if the Sox exercise it, or $3 million if triggers it himself. Furcal and Rollins, five-and-a-half and four-and-a-half years older than Reyes, respectively, have been beset by injuries in recent years, as has the ever-enigmatic Hardy. Beyond that group you're into the overly aged and otherwise incomplete offerings, guys who can't hit worth a lick or aren't really shortstops anymore.

Add to that the fact that the team has no blue-chip replacement for Reyes in their pipeline. The Mets' top internal replacements are Chin-Lung Hu and RubenTejada. The former is a 27-year-old glove wiz who flopped mightily when the Dodgers gave him a shot at replacing the injured Furcal in 2008; he's forecast for a .238 TAv this year. The latter is a 21-year-old who's forecast for a .216 TAv; last year, he graded out as a three-star prospect whose ceiling was as either a second-division starter or a utilityman. The Omar Minaya regime rushed him to the Show after injuries to both Reyes and Luis Castillo, and he hit just .213/.305/.282 in 255 plate appearances, time that a smarter regime would have let him use to shore up his game in Triple-A.

In that light, Reyes starts to look like an even better option. It's certainly possible the team could trade him mid-season or let him walk at the end of the year, and take their chances by acquiring a stopgap, but long-term solutions are few and far between. Given a season from Reyes at a level similar to last year, there's a very good chance that the Mets reach the same conclusion that I did on the air, that it may be more productive to choose the devil they know in Reyes, as opposed to the devil they don't.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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