The 2015 season was supposed to be the gravy of the five years remaining on the Jose Reyes contract that the Jays traded for before 2013.
We always knew that the back end of the deal was going to be tough to swallow, with $44-million owed for his age-33 and 34 seasons (2016 and ’17), plus a $4-million buyout of his final year club option. But that all was going to be made palatable by the first two years of glory — *COUGH* — of a peak form All-Star shortstop at the top of a stacked lineup on a team boasting a Cy Young winner heading a deep and experienced rotation.
Reyes made just $26-million in total for those second and third years of the six-year pact he originally signed with the Marlins. By the time 2015 rolled around — his first season with a $22-million salary — playoff trips were supposed to have begotten revenue increases that kept the deal from strangling the club’s payroll. Other stars were supposed to be kept or added. Reyes was supposed to be entrenched as the club’s dazzling, fan favourite shortstop. Perhaps seeing the first significant signs of age-related decline, and likely being paid more than he was worth, his warts were supposed to be masked by the wild and successful baseball adventure he had led this club on over the previous two years.
Or that was the theory, at least. It was the dream. But obviously in practice things haven’t exactly worked out that way, and that’s making the Blue Jays’ Jose Reyes situation especially problematic.
It’s not that he’s bad, though his defence in 2014 certainly was.
There’s maybe a chance his shoulder problems and hamstring problems and the wear and tear of playing every day on turf made it look worse than it really is. But it’s not like those things are merely 2014 issues. The shoulder issue may clear up, and the club says it wants to limit his starts in order to keep him healthier, but the turf isn’t going anywhere, and it’s impossible from this vantage to see his legs suddenly getting better either.
That said, I generally believe wins above replacement has it right, even if our confidence in the small-sample defensive metrics used isn’t tremendously high. By both versions of WAR he was a three win player this season. Additionally, according to the team rankings of shortstops by wins above average at Baseball Reference, the Jays were 13th of the 30 MLB teams this season, and just one tenth of a win out of 11th. And by FanGraphs’ version of WAR, he ranked 9th among the 29 shortstops with at least 350 plate appearances, and was seventh among that group (fifth among those who qualified for the batting title) by wRC+.
In other words, Reyes isn’t at all unplayable at his preferred position, because his bat makes up for a whole lot of his deficiencies with the glove. It’s not a position you normally get a lot of offence from, and being able to keep a decent bat in your lineup by playing a guy like Reyes there truly is a valuable thing… um… unless, in order to make up for your shortstop’s defensive issues you stick an amazing defender who couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag, like Ryan Goins, at second base. Then the good bat of your almost-passable shortstop isn’t sweet, delicious, valuable gravy, it’s necessary to help carry the second baseman. And then the value of your second baseman’s otherworldly defence is mitigated significantly because his great glove is at the less valuable position.
It’s a bit of a mess. Especially when one of them is the unmovable, $22-million payroll anchor who didn’t foster nearly as much goodwill over his first two seasons as expected.
So what do you do?
Some fans have very strong ideas, and have rushed to point me in the direction of something like Brandon Kuty’s slideshow piece on the Yankees’ off-season priorities at NJ.com, in which (on the second slide) he says of that club’s shortstop issue, that “ex-Mets star Jose Reyes could be a trade candidate.” A site called Yankees 101 speculates on why Reyes may be a fit, and suggests that “if Toronto is looking to unload Reyes’ contract at $22 million, the Yankees may want Toronto to help pay for some of Reyes’ deal in return.”
That sort of talk from the New York blogosphere certainly will get folks here salivating to ditch Reyes as quickly as possible. It’s not the craziest idea, either. He’s clearly a liability defensively, and as much as I’m quick to point out his 2014 WAR totals, he accumulated those in a season in which he missed just 19 games. Even if you make the assumption that he doesn’t decline much performance-wise (which isn’t too outlandish, depending on how much better you think he could be with his shoulder issue resolved and his hamstring problems less pronounced), he still needs to stay on the field to provide that kind of value, which is questionable, to put it politely. In fact, the Jays say they are going to deliberately sit him, or DH him, which will make accumulating wins above replacement all the more difficult. And the additional, horrifically expensive years of the deal don’t exactly make the situation any better.
There is, however, another way to look at it — a necessary way, given the fact that the Jays want to be competitive in 2015 and beyond.
The Jays need to get better, and jettisoning a three-win player in what is essentially a salary dump simply isn’t a great way to go about doing so — especially if they’re required to pick up some of his salary. Getting three wins on the free agent market, by most calculations, will likely cost somewhere in the $15- to $20-million range. With Reyes making $22-million, that’s basically a wash.
Of course, it’s possible that the Jays can identify a player who they think can produce more for less money (Jed Lowrie is perhaps an intriguing name on the free agent market, if you’re into oft-injured shortstops — which you apparently are not), or who will do things that better help them specifically than Reyes does (i.e. a greater emphasis on playing defence, and staying healthy, on the pool table that is the Rogers Centre surface). On the other hand, there’s a lot of uncertainty that comes with playing the market, and it’s not like the Jays haven’t been burned before — or haven’t burned themselves by being far too conservative with their dollars. Meanwhile, Reyes is obviously already here.
No, offloading all the money left owing to Reyes isn’t entirely about 2015, but that’s actually the year in which it seems most dire to do so. That’s because, including what he’ll make, the Jays have just $27.6-million committed for the season after next. Add in the $32-million the club will need to pay in order to pick up the options of Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and R.A. Dickey, and that’s still just $59.6-million, albeit with arbitration raises still not factored in for the other 21 guys on the roster. And the following year only Reyes’s final $22-million payment is on the books.
If they’re allowed to spend anywhere close to the $137-million they did last year, that’s more than enough to work with and to keep Reyes, and I think they will. They’ll just need to find a way to mitigate his liabilities defensively.
To do so last year the Blue Jays tried to bring in Ian Kinsler, who is a good defender at second base, and swings the bat about as well as Reyes does. Having those two up the middle defensively isn’t great, but because of the offence they certainly would have looked astronomically better than what we saw. In fact, unless the deal on the table for Kinsler included a Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion (or Marcus Stroman), if it had gone through, we’re very possibly having a very, very different conversation right now.
Next year they could certainly try something similar, and given how badly it’s presumed he wants to stay at short — think Troy Tulowitzki telling WEEI.com that shortstops view a move to third “as a punch in the gut,” and the Denver Post, “No, I won’t move. I’ll retire before I move.” — they might have no other choice. (Also: yes, please, get a great second baseman).
Beyond that, they’re certainly thinking about what to do with him — at least according to comments from the Toronto Sun’s Bob Elliott on a recent episode of Prime Time Sports on the Fan 590.
“They don’t have a replacement, and here’s the thing about the guy: I don’t think he’ll move,” he said. “They want to put him in the outfield — that’s what they want to do. Internally, they’ve discussed it. But I don’t think he’ll go there, and I think if you go to second base, he’s going to have the same problems with the lack of range.”
I think Elliott is right about the range issues, mitigated though they’d be, but there are other problems with having Reyes at second base. Not only did he look somewhat tentative at times this year on plays at the bag, as though he was overly conscious of keeping his hurt-riddled legs out of harms way — an issue that would likely only get worse were he being asked to turn double plays as a second baseman — but a move to the right side of the diamond would also take away what seems to be his best defensive asset: his arm.
I don’t know if he has the arm to be a great third baseman, but to me it should be more than passable, and playing there would limit the need for him to have the kind of range that shortstop requires, and would lessen the number of potential collisions he’d be involved in (assuming that’s even a real concern). And with Brett Lawrie’s ability to play second, an eventual move there seems obvious to me, even if it needs to be done with him kicking and screaming.
Moving him to the outfield is quite a bit more problematic, and frankly I’m not quite sure what the hell the Jays are thinking on this front. Not only does his bat not play remotely as well at a corner outfield spot (his wRC+ this year would have ranked him 40th among 55 qualified outfielders), I’m just not seeing how asking a guy with leg and hamstring problems to go running down long fly balls on concrete is going to be ideal for his health.
Maybe he could do it a little bit, though. With Adam Lind off the books in 2016, maybe Reyes is a guy that you look to DH in the future, or to be a Ben Zobrist who can split his time between DH, the infield, and the outfield.
I don’t know!
Whatever the case, it’s going to be interesting, to put it politely, to see where this all goes. At least there appear to be something resembling options for the club. And fortunately, much of it all is a problem for another day. Unfortunately, today’s problem is that, despite the howls from many of the denizens of the peanut gallery, Jose Reyes will almost certainly still be the Jays’ starting shortstop in 2015. I hope I’ve made clear that there are far worse problems to have. However, if the Jays again try to offset his poor defence by employing someone like Ryan Goins at second base, or end up forced to turn to any of the various types of replacement level fodder we saw out there to the right of Reyes this season, it’s a problem that could again undoubtedly be fatal to their chances.