There was a bit of a kerfuffle this week when Jose Reyes had the temerity to have dinner in Philadelphia, sparking speculation that he could be negotiating with the Phillies. The team moved quickly to quash the notion, saying they'd had no contact with Reyes nor did they expect to.
This makes sense, actually; while Reyes could be a replacement for free-agent shortstop Jimmy Rollins, he's a fairly poor fit for the team. They've already committed big money to closer Jonathan Papelbon this winter, making them unlikely to pursue another top-tier free agent. With so many aging players with injury histories, any money they do spend may have to be geared towards lower-risk players, rather than someone like Reyes, whose hamstrings make him a question mark. Finally, while he's probably not ready now, the Phillies' 2011 Minor League Player of the Year is a young shortstop, Freddy Galvis, and blocking him would be inefficient. The Phillies' most likely path is re-signing Rollins, rather than importing a more expensive player from their rivals to the north.
So if Reyes isn't headed down I-95 to play in red and white, where will he take his talents? The Marlins have been aggressive about meeting with all the top free agents, but their pursuits are taking on the look of a public relations initiative rather than serious interest. With the expected revenue boost of a new ballpark, significant lineup holes and a wider window with the Phillies' aging and being without Ryan Howard for at least part of 2012, there's definitely incentive for them to pull the trigger.
Standing in the way is Hanley Ramirez, who is coming off the worst season of his career and appears to want no part of a move to third base. It's not hard to see his point -- before the lost season, it had been years since Reyes had been the better player than Ramirez. Ramirez gives up ground to Reyes defensively, but makes up for that at the plate and with better durability. Ramirez has long been considered a candidate to move to centerfield, but as we saw with Derek Jeter and the Yankees, convincing the player to make that kind of move isn't easy. It's hard to see the Marlins navigating these issues while also making the highest bid on Reyes. There's a better chance he ends up in Miami than in Philly, but neither is likely.
The decision to sign Reyes is complicated by the question of what kind of player he is. No player in this market has shown a wider range of outcomes in recent seasons, from a 0.7 bWAR (Wins Above Replacement, as measured by baseball-reference.com) in an injury-shortened 2009, to an MVP-candidate performance (5.8 bWAR) that was also cut short by injuries in 2011. Reyes played in just 33 games in 2009 before a right hamstring tear ended his year, then suffered a left hamstring strain in July of '11 that...well, see for yourself:
One of those lines is worth Carl Crawford money. The other, while a good player, isn't. Far too often over the past three seasons -- Reyes also missed substantial time in 2010 with a thyroid condition and an oblique strain -- Reyes hasn't been able to get into the lineup and stay there while playing at his best. All of these injuries have occurred at ages where a player's durability should be an asset, and while some players have Paul Molitor's career path and suddenly get and stay healthy at 30, it's not the bet you want to make for $120 million or so. From ages 22-25, Reyes missed just 15 games; from 26-28, he's missed 191. That's a dangerous trend to buy into, even for a player who was probably the best in the NL up until the July 2 injury.
The risk will be built into the price, which is why Reyes isn't likely to be offered Carl Crawford's deal, even though his career stats are quite similar to what Crawford's were after 2010, and he's a year younger than Crawford was when the latter became a free agent. A seventh year is out of reach, and a sixth may only be tendered with strings. Twenty-three million dollars a season isn't going to happen, although $20 million may. I suspect Reyes eventually signs for six years and $114 million or so. If the Phillies and the Marlins won't go there, who will?
• The Tigers' championship hopes were dashed in part by a lack of quality hitters, and the lineup suffered from not having enough runners on base in front of Miguel Cabrera. Tigers' leadoff batters, mostly Austin Jackson, had a .311 OBP last year. Jhonny Peralta is under contract for another season, but he's played a lot of third base and could be moved back there fairly easily. The Tigers haven't been shy about laying out big money for players under owner Mike Ilitch and GM Dave Dombrowski, and few contending teams would get a bigger bump than the Tigers would by adding Reyes to their lineup. They've not been mentioned as a candidate at all, which is usually when a team is most dangerous.
• The Nationals came out of nowhere last year to sign Jayson Werth to a seven-year deal, a contract that was roundly mocked the day it was signed and doesn't look any better today. The willingness to spend money remains, however. The Nationals have been tied to the free-agent first basemen, but Reyes may make more sense for them. Their incumbent shortstop, Ian Desmond, isn't a very good player -- a .304 OBP in 1,302 career PA, with poor defense at short -- and their system is deeper in middle-of-the-order bats like Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon than in leadoff types. This isn't terribly likely, but if you evaluate Desmond correctly, you can see that the gain the Nats make in signing Reyes exceeds what they'd get by adding a first baseman. If they're going to write another big check, it should be to Reyes.
• Like the Nationals, the Cubs have been tied to Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. New GM Theo Epstein, however, may want to spend his money on a more complete player. Reyes combines Fielder's youth with Pujols' all-around game, and likely comes cheaper than either does. With questions mounting about Starlin Castro's defense, signing Reyes would open the door for moving Castro to second base or even third -- currently completely empty on the 2012 roster (sorry, Mr. Lemahieu). Reyes is the player Alfonso Soriano was supposed to be, and significantly less likely to become the albatross Soriano has become five years into his deal.
• Finally, there's Reyes' old team. The Mets elected not to trade Reyes during the season in part because they thought that decision would enhance their chance of keeping him. That was always a silly notion -- Reyes is trying to get paid, and not inclined to offer a discount. Even in their neutered state, the Mets can certainly afford Reyes, with so much money coming off their books after the '11 season. The Mets haven't had a payroll below $110 million since 2006, nor below $100 million since 2004. Right now, they have about $62 million committed to five players and a couple of arbitration cases likely to push that to $72 million. Unless the Mets plan to run their lowest payroll in close to a decade, they can afford Reyes while still saving money as compared to 2011.
Signing Reyes would be a significant positive for a fan base that has had precious little to be happy about the past three years. Maybe, after all the noise, Reyes ends up right back where he started.