Player Profile: Reyes a risky choice amid slim pickings at shortstop

The shortstop position remains as thin as ever, so Toronto Blue Jays' Jose Reyes, despite his injury risk, may be the best bet for fantasy owners.
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All around the infield, positions are getting deeper. First base hasn’t ever been a problem for fantasy owners, but second and third are trouble spots no longer. Ryan Zimmerman, Pablo Sandoval and Matt Carpenter are all outside the top 10 by average draft position at third. Dustin Pedroia is seventh among second baseman, while Neil Walker, who just hit 23 homers last year, is 10th.

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The pattern breaks at shortstop, which is still just about as shallow as ever. Admittedly, the top of the rankings, with Troy Tulowitzki, Ian Desmond and Hanley Ramirez are strong (so long as the bookends of the top tier are actually on the field). After that, however, the position takes a sharp downward turn. Need proof? Of the shortstops ranked seventh through 10th by ADP—Elvis Andrus, Jean Segura, Xander Bogaerts and Jimmy Rollins—had batting averages ranging from .240 to .263 last year. If you miss out on the top of the position, you’re likely going to be talking yourself into one of these players.

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With shortstop a potential landmine for fantasy owners, many may be thinking about taking a plunge on Jose Reyes even earlier than his 49.95 ADP. Reyes, who turns 32 years old in June, is clearly not the player he was five years ago. He stands as a one-man tier at shortstop, behind the Tulo-Desmond-Hanley triumvirate, but ahead of the likes of Chicago’s finest Alexei Ramirez and Starlin Castro, and the quartet listed in the disheartening paragraph above. Is Reyes worth the price you’ll pay, or should you move on to your favorite sleeper at the position once the top-three shortstops are off the board?

Reyes had a productive 2014 season, hitting .287/.328/.398 with 30 steals, 94 runs and nine homers. On a per-game basis, it was similar to his '12 season, his first and only in Miami, when he hit .287/.347/.433 with 40 steals, 86 runs and 11 homers. For a player who always carries injury concerns, Reyes has actually aged pretty well. He has played in at least 143 games in two of the last three years. Unfortunately for his then-owners, he was having his best per-game season of the three in '13, when injuries limited him to 93 games. Still, the 162-game averages for Reyes’ age-29 through age-31 seasons suggest he’s on the top tier’s heels, not holding off the third tier: .289/.342/.419, 35 steals, 97 runs, 12 homers, 59 RBI, 37 doubles, seven triples, .365 wOBA, 135 wRC+ (All stats are rounded to the nearest whole number.)

The catch with Reyes is that you can’t count on him to play 162, or even 150, games—since 2008, he has played in 36, 133, 126, 160, 93 and 143 games. Owners can deal with 143 or 133 or even 126 games. Owners cannot deal with the 93-game seasons.

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Reyes has been productive when healthy into his 30s. He has given his owners full seasons in two of the last three years. He enters 2015 without a nagging leg injury, so the only added injury risk he carries is his personal history, which has been checkered, but not as bad as is frequently intimated. Most of us here aren’t doctors, so it would be silly to speculate as to his ability to stay healthy this year. What we do know is that he carries greater than the baseline risk for injury, given his track record and age. That, when paired with a few noticeable trends, make the opportunity cost of selecting him too steep for me to buy in fully.

First, Reyes’ isolated slugging his dipped, albeit slightly, in each of the last three seasons. What made Reyes such a special player at the end of last decades wasn’t just his speed, but that he brought with it 12-to-15 homer potential every year. His ISO last season was just .111, down from .131 in 2013, which had fallen from .146 the year before. Realistically, he’s an 8-to-11 homer guy now, and that assumes a minimum of 600 plate appearances.

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Second, we need to talk about Reyes’ calling card. The days of him stealing 40 bases are gone, and even 30 could be a stretch at this point. Reyes isn’t running nearly as much as he did just three years ago. Baseball-Reference keeps track of a nifty stat it calls stolen-base opportunities, which totals the number of times a player was on first or second and the next base was unoccupied. There’s some context that gets left out of this stat (you probably don’t want Reyes trying to steal third with Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista at the plate), but it does paint the overall picture well, and that says that Reyes simply isn’t attempting to steal as often as he used to when he has the chance.

Last year, Reyes ran in 12.9 percent of his stolen base opportunities. In 2013, he was down at 10.9 percent. In the three seasons prior to that, he attempted to steal in no fewer than 18.3 percent of his opportunities. Thirty steals used to be a floor for him. Now, it’s a ceiling.

If Reyes can stay healthy for all or most of 2015, you can bet on him being productive and likely delivering on his draft-day price. At the same time, he’s hearing his name called alongside players like Carlos Gonzalez and Zack Greinke. While I think the price tag is fair, I also think there’s simply too much risk, especially considering his declining power and proclivity to run. Players like Segura, Rollins and Alcides Escobar may be flawed, but you can also get them 100 picks later. More often than not, I find myself taking that route.