Alex Rodriguez…Derek Jeter…Jose Reyes? Reyes no doubt trails the left side of the New York Yankees’ infield in matinee idol status, but it may not be long before the 20-year-old sets aside a slice of the Big Apple–if he hasn’t already. In a 69-game sampling of the big leagues last season Reyes batted .307 with 21 extra-base hits and 13 stolen bases in just 274 at-bats. Reyes, who set a New York Mets rookie record in August with 39 hits, also flashed the leather by not committing an error in his last 35 games.
The young Dominican made such an impression that he was mentioned as an early candidate for National League Rookie of the Year honors before missing the final month of the season with a left ankle sprain. Now, the potential All-Star returns for another go-round, with hopes of making Mets fans everywhere remember his name for years to come. Despite having to battle a strained right hamstring that could keep him out of the season opener, Reyes recently discussed his rapid climb through the minor leagues, playing in New York and what’s expected of him–among other topics–with Baseball Prospectus.
Baseball Prospectus: Not only did you suffer the ankle injury last year, but you also had hamstring problems. How much of a concern is that with the start of the season three weeks away?
Jose Reyes: It’s disappointing to be honest with you, but the only thing I can do is get help from the trainers and try to heal as soon as possible. I did a lot of leg work during the off-season to get stronger so it’s kind of tough.
BP: What kind of leg work?
Reyes: I did a lot of speed and conditioning drills because my legs are an important aspect of my game. I did a lot of shuttle running with the cones and speed sprints. I tried building my legs a little bit.
BP: After playing shortstop last season, how comfortable are you with moving to second base? How tough has it been not being able to work with Kazuo Matsui more than you would have liked?
Reyes: It’s not really a big deal. I worked on it some in the Dominican (winter league) and maybe you have to be a little quicker but I don’t expect any problems. I’m confident I can cover the ground at second and still get guys out because of my arm strength.
BP: What’s going to be the biggest adjustment for you at second base?
Reyes: With me I think it’s always going to be just staying patient. It might take me about 40-50 games to feel really comfortable.
BP: Your impressions of playing in Shea Stadium so far?
Reyes: It’s not a great hitter’s park, but there is a lot of space, so that plays to my game. I think I can hit .300 playing half of my games there.
BP: You hit .358 (59-165) over your last 40 games last season and finished at a .336 clip at Shea. Why do you think you were so successful?
Reyes: I think I had a small advantage over some pitchers that had never seen me. But to stay consistent it’s going to take a lot of video work and making adjustments. I expect that a lot of pitchers will come at me differently this season.
BP: In what way do you think it will be different?
Reyes: I’ll probably see a lot more breaking pitches this time around.
BP: As a switch-hitter do you prepare differently when you’re facing a right-hander as opposed to a left-hander?
Reyes: I don’t try to change a lot because when you do that you get in trouble. A good percentage of this game is mental so that can really work against you.
BP: Does playing in New York–with Jeter and A-Rod–put even more pressure on you to produce?
Reyes: I don’t look at that way. I like the pressure of people expecting me to do well. But I’m checking the newspaper everyday to see how they did, that’s for sure.
BP: After signing as a non-drafted player you moved quickly through the Mets’ farm system. Can you talk about what that was like.
Reyes: It was a lot of fun, to be honest with you. When I showed up I was really raw, but a lot of guys helped me along the way. Howard Johnson really helped me at the Double-A level. I don’t think I’d be here if those guys didn’t push me the way they did.
BP: What’s been your biggest adjustment getting used to life in this country?
Reyes: It wasn’t easy trying to learn English and just getting use to everything around me. But above everything I think getting used to the everyday grind of the game was the toughest thing.
BP: What kinds of things are you talking about?
Reyes: I only played 69 games, but getting used to the travel and schedule of a major leaguer took some time. That’s something that really caught me off guard.
BP: You’re not eligible for the National League Rookie of the Year Award this year after exceeding the 130 at-bat limit last season. How much did it bother you that missing out on the award?
Reyes: Having a chance to be honored in such a way would have meant a lot, but if you’re in this game to win awards then you’re in it for the wrong reasons. What was important to me last year was going out and trying to get better every day. Just being able to play the game and take small steps was important for me. The award would have been nice, but it’s not something I gave a lot of thought to.
BP: You made nine errors as a rookie, but that was after finishing the season with a 35-game errorless streak (Reyes’ last error was July 23rd in Montreal). What was the reason (if any) for the quick turnaround late in the season? Did playing alongside Roberto Alomar benefit you in some way?
Reyes: Being the new guy out there sometimes you’re overanxious and I think that hurt me a little bit. I made some careless throws and have really worked on handling the routine play with more ease. I think it was more mental than anything. Any time you play with a future Hall of Famer by your side it’s very helpful, especially for a young guy like me. But it would have been a lot more fun if we would have won more games.
BP: What kind of power hitter do you think you could develop into in the future?
Reyes: Even though I’m not a big guy I know I’m going to put on weight as I get older. Looking at it now I’m probably not going to kill the ball–especially playing some games at Shea–but with a lot of work I could reach 15-20 homers a season regularly.
BP: What’s most important for you as you enter your second season in the big leagues?
Reyes: I want to get healthy and keep improving so we can get this franchise back to where it was before. The baseball fans in New York are extremely passionate about the game and have been expecting a winner for a long time. Hopefully, we’ll give them what they want very soon.
Fernando Ruano, Jr. is a freelance baseball writer based in Miami whose contributions have appeared in the Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and San Juan (P.R.) Star. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.