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May 23, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Grab Reyes, Grab a Pennant

by Jay Jaffe

In recent weeks, the Dodgers' Frank McCourt had taken a commanding lead in Major League Baseball's ongoing Embattled Owner Derby, dominating headlines with his futile machinations as Bud Selig moved to strip him of his mismanaged franchise. The Mets' Fred Wilpon got his club back in the game on Monday, courtesy of a lengthy Jeffrey Toobin profile in The New Yorker. While the all-access article provides an enlightening perspective on Wilpon's rags-to-riches story and his entanglement in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, most notable on the baseball side is the owner's comments regarding pending free agents Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes, comments which leave little doubt that both players' days in Queens are numbered.

Like all too many a Mets fan, Wilpon is still haunted by Beltran's season-ending strikeout against the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright in Game Seven of the 2006 National League Championship Series, seeing it not only as evidence of a curse from which the club has yet to emerge, but also a bad baseball decision to sign the center fielder. "We had some schmuck in New York who paid him based on that one series," he told Toobin, referring to his own willingness to sign Beltran to a seven-year, $119 million deal on the heels of his outstanding 2004 postseason showing with the Astros. Never mind the fact that the 34-year-old Beltran has hit .279/.367/.500 as a Met, better than his previous .284/.353/.490 career line, this while toiling in a pitcher-friendly environment amid falling scoring levels. "He's sixty-five to seventy per cent of what he was," says the owner of a player who has returned from two injury-wracked years to hit .281/.380/530—good for a top ten-ranked .324 True Average while playing in all but two games for a team that's 22-23, right in line with preseason expectations despite a near-Biblical plague of injuries.

To an even greater extent than Beltran, Reyes is back in top form, hitting .318/.371/.467 while leading the league in triples (six) and steals (17) after spending two years in the weeds due to injuries. Less than three weeks shy of his 28th birthday, he's in line for a substantial payday, particularly given the coming winter's weak market for shortstops. Wilpon dismissed the idea that the Mets would be inclined to pay up: "He thinks he’s going to get Carl Crawford money," he told Toobin. "He’s had everything wrong with him... He won't get it."

It's a stretch to envision anyone ponying up $142 million given Reyes' injury history, but clearly the shortstop is worth something to a franchise in dire need of a gate attraction; the Mets are running eighth in the league in attendance for the second straight season, this while carrying the league's third-highest opening-day payroll. Less than two weeks ago, no-nonsense general manager Sandy Alderson, whose job it is to right the Mets' ship amid the roiled sea of red ink and self-pity, sounded as though he would give serious weight to keeping the shortstop. “You do need to take into account the baseball skill that a player possesses, but there’s another element, too — there’s an entertainment component," he told The New York Times's Tyler Kepner. "What I’ve seen here is the connection he makes with the fans. It goes a little bit beyond his performance."

Unless Alderson can talk Wilpon out of starting a fire sale, it does sound as though Reyes will be on the move this summer. With that in mind, here's a look at the contenders—teams with at least a 15 percent shot at making the postseason—who aren't getting much in the way of production at shortstop.

The Favorites

Giants
After letting both World Series MVP Edgar Renteria and fellow postseason hero Juan Uribe depart over the winter, Brian Sabean turned to an even older free agent in Miguel Tejada, who has looked every bit the 37-year-old (his birthday is this week) while hitting a limp .224/.247/.286. With Pablo Sandoval and Mark DeRosa both on the disabled list, Tejada has shifted back to third base lately, with Mike Fontenot (.218/.330/.414) pressed into regular duty at short; in unrelated news, the Giants are 14th in the league in scoring, averaging 3.54 runs per game overall, and 3.30 this month. A trade for Reyes is so blindingly obvious that rumor of a deal surfaced earlier this month. The team's farm system is among the lower third in the majors according to Kevin Goldstein's rankings, though third starter Jonathan Sanchez has been mentioned as a name which could appeal to the Mets, whose rotation has been decimated by injuries.

Reds
Neither starter Paul Janish (.230/.265/.278) nor backup Renteria (.228/.326/.253) are hitting worth a warm bucket of yak spit, though that hasn't exactly hindered the Reds' offense (second in the league in scoring at 5.04 runs per game), or their defense (sixth in Defensive Efficiency at .702). Still, the team has shown that last year's NL Central win wasn't a one-off deal, and the Reds do have pitching depth and a strong farm system, with multiple middle infield and catching prospects.

Makes a Whole Lotta Sense, But...

Rangers
While the defending AL champs lead their division, they're off to a sluggish 24-23 start thanks to an offense that's stalled due to the losses of both Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. Those two sluggers should be back in the lineup this week, but it's tempting to wonder how much more potent their attack could be if topped by Reyes instead of Elvis Andrus, whose .270/.317/.339 line represents career lows in both on-base and slugging percentages. The Rangers could provide the Mets with a young, cost-controlled, and potentially popular replacement in Andrus, as well as a prospect or two to dream on, and they could afford to retain Reyes on a multiyear deal. Admittedly it's a longshot, but worth mentioning given the in-season creativity Jon Daniels has shown in recent years via his Mark Teixeira and Cliff Lee trades.

Rays
Reid Brignac has been the majors' worst hitter, with a .153 True Average off an appalling .170/.210/.180 line, and while journeyman Elliot Johnson has hit .250/.300/.406 in limited duty, there's a reason he's languished in the minors until age 27. The Rays have an outstanding minor league system that's about to get even richer with the upcoming draft, and they can even think about dealing a cost-controlled big leaguer from their rotation (Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann) or their lineup (B.J. Upton). It's certainly worth imagining how Reyes' speed and on-base skills would help an offense whose .309 OBP ranks 11th in the league. Not that it's anything but a minuscule sample size, but Reyes owns a career .426/.436/.574 line in 12 games on artificial turf.

Braves
It's difficult to imagine the Mets dealing with a division foe; trading Reyes to Atlanta would be such a below-the-belt kick to the fan base that one has to figure Alderson is sensitive enough to steer clear. Nonetheless, with Alex Gonzalez hitting just .254/.286/.387, the need is there, particularly in a lineup where virtually everybody aside from the injured Chipper Jones is underperforming. The Braves have one of the game's top farm systems, and while Julio Tehran certainly isn't going anywhere, other high-end pitching prospects could appeal to the Mets.

Cardinals
Ryan Theriot is hitting well over his head at .300/.352/.338, and the Cardinals lead the league in scoring at 5.06 runs per game, but the team has approximately 37 infielders on the DL at the moment, depleting their depth to the point that Albert Pujols has seen time at third base. Unless the Cards are willing to part with Shelby Miller or Zack Cox—and no one is saying they are—it's difficult to see how such a deal could happen, but such a gutsy move could separate St. Louis from the Central pack.

Longer-Than-Longshots

Red Sox
Marco Scutaro (.235/.316/.309) has been displaced by Jed Lowrie, who won't hit .319/.362/.478 forever. Having just traded a bevy of prospects for Adrian Gonzalez, it's difficult to imagine the Sox going to the well again, particularly for a short-term move, and with a rotation that's now down two starters due to injuries.

Brewers
One condition of trading for Zack Greinke was that the Brewers had to take on the execrable Yuniesky Betancourt, who's doing his best to hinder the team's all-in bid by hitting a cringeworthy .224/.254/.333. Given that Brewers are getting almost no offense beyond Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks—a combined .235/.290/.341, if you must know—Reyes would be a welcome boon, but the team's system is spent, and outside of a trade involving Yovani Gallardo, it's virtually impossible to conceive of a deal which would bring Reyes to Milwaukee.

Yankees
Nothing to see here, folks, move along. Derek Jeter's wheezing along at a .268/.318/.333 clip, but it's tabloid nonsense to suggest that the Yankees could even entertain such a notion as to trade for Reyes given the Captain's expensive new contract. Which isn't to say that Reyes couldn't outplay Jeter at this stage of the game.

 

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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