The Mets reuniting with Jose Reyes is the splashier of the moves the organization made Saturday, but New York’s promotion of Brandon Nimmo—and demotion of Michael Conforto—will have more of a bearing on the team’s chances this season.
The Mets made two notable moves on Saturday afternoon in their ongoing effort to revive their injury-ravaged offense, which has outscored only the Braves and Phillies on the season. However, the transaction that will draw all the headlines won’t be the one that will have the largest impact. As long rumored, the Mets reunited with their former All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, signing him to a minor league contract mere moments after he was released by the Rockies Saturday afternoon. At the same time, they conceded to Michael Conforto’s slump, demoting the sophomore leftfielder to Triple A and calling up centerfield prospect Brandon Nimmo to take his spot on the roster.
Reyes, who has yet to appear in a major league game this season due to the fallout from his October arrest for allegedly assaulting his wife, an incident which resulted in a 52-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s new domestic violence policy, will report to the Brooklyn Cyclones of the short-season New York-Penn League with expectations of being promoted to the major league roster in the coming weeks. Nimmo, however, could have an immediate impact on both sides of the ball.
Consider first what he is replacing. Conforto is just 22 days older than Nimmo, a more highly regarded prospect, and was a key part of New York’s late-season surge last year, hitting .270/.335/.506 in 56 games and adding three home runs in the postseason. However, after a fantastic April this season, he fell into a brutal slump which only seemed to worsen as the season progressed. Since May 1, Conforto has hit .148/.217/.303 with 48 strikeouts against just 13 walks in 157 plate appearances. Since June 9, he was just 3 for 33 (.091). With Travis d’Arnaud having recently returned from the disabled list and James Loney and Wilmer Flores doing a respectable job of filling in at the infield corners for Lucas Duda (stress fracture in his lower back) and David Wright (herniated disk in his neck), respectively, left field had become by far the biggest hole in the Mets’ lineup.
What’s more, Conforto’s presence in the lineup had forced Yoenis Cespedes into centerfield, downgrading the Mets’ outfield defense at two positions. Nimmo is a proper centerfielder who can push Cespedes back to leftfield, dramatically upgrading the defense, as Cespedes was a deserving Gold Glove award-winner in leftfield for the Tigers last year before becoming an overextended centerfielder with the Mets.
Because of that, Nimmo would appear to be an upgrade regardless of what he does at the plate. However, he is arriving in the majors hot, having hit .388/.459/.612 thus far in June. Considered a top-100 prospect prior to the 2015 season, Nimmo has hit .328/.409/.508 with seven triples overall this season for Triple A Las Vegas and is a career .276/.385/.407 hitter in the minors. There’s no telling how he’ll adjust to his first exposure to major league pitching, but with Juan Lagares facing the possibility of surgery on his sprained left thumb, Nimmo should get a fair opportunity to show what he can do as the Mets’ everyday centerfielder.
As for Reyes, that signing seems likely to have more narrative significance than practical impact. A decade ago, Reyes and Wright were the Mets’ signature players. Young and exceptionally talented, they formed arguably the best left side of an infield in baseball at that time and helped propel New York to the seventh game of the 2006 National League Championship Series. Reyes made four All-Star teams as a Met and won the NL batting title in his final year with the team. However, since signing a six-year, $106 million contract with the Marlins following the 2011 season, he has seen his star fall.
After an underwhelming debut season in Miami, Reyes was shipped to the Blue Jays in a blockbuster 12-player trade. Always injury prone, Reyes spent most of his first three months in Toronto on the disabled list due to an ankle sprain, playing in just 93 games in his first season as a Blue Jay. Relatively healthy in 2014—he missed just 16 games due to a hamstring injury—he failed to hit as well as he had in limited action the previous year. He then missed a month with a cracked rib in early 2015 and in late July of that year was shipped to Colorado in the trade that sent Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto. Reyes hit a combined .274/.310/.378 (82 OPS+) in 2015, his worst performance at the plate since his age-22 season a decade earlier. That October, he was arrested following a physical altercation with his wife at a hotel in Hawaii.
With a trial looming, Reyes was placed on administrative leave from the Rockies before reporting to spring training this year. Reyes’s wife declined to cooperate with prosecutors, leading to the charges against Reyes being dropped before the trial date, a distressingly common occurrence in domestic violence cases. But that didn’t prevent MLB from handing Reyes a suspension which left him inactive and without pay for the first two months of the season.
Reyes never did play for the Rockies this year. His only competitive baseball thus far this season has been a nine-game “rehab” assignment with Triple A Albuquerque. Reyes finished that stint with a flourish, collecting two hits in every game of a four-game series against the Mets’ Triple A affiliate, clearly impressing the parent club.
Reyes turned 33 on the penultimate day of that series and it’s difficult to see how he fits in the Mets infield, even with Wright out of the picture. Reyes is a below-average defensive shortstop and since playing 43 games at second base in 2004 has played no other position in the major leagues. His last exposure at third base was seven games in Rookie ball in his age-17 season in 2000.
Flores has done a fine job as the Mets’ primary third baseman since Wright was placed on the disabled list on June 3, hitting .298/.369/.474 over the last three weeks. Second baseman Neil Walker has been the second-best hitter on the team after Cespedes, and the Mets already have a more experienced left-handed bat to back up those positions in utility man Kelly Johnson, who has hit .286/.375/.464 since being reacquired from the Braves earlier this month.
That would seem to put Reyes in direct competition with incumbent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. However, Cabrera is two and half years younger than Reyes and has been his equal at the plate since Reyes left the Mets, posting a 102 OPS+ since 2012 to Reyes’s 103, with a similar 99 OPS+ thus far this year. That said, the switch-hitting Cabrera has always been a stronger hitter from the right side of the plate, creating a potential platoon opportunity for Reyes, who could use that chance to earn increased playing time.
In the meantime, Reyes seems likely to begin his second term with the Mets as a bench player, though even there, he’s not an automatic upgrade over 25-year-old rookie Matt Reynolds. Reynolds famously replaced Ruben Tejada on the Mets’ postseason roster last October, his first stint on a major league roster, but never got into a game. Having finally seen major league action this year, he has hit .267/.313/.467 (109 OPS+) in 33 plate appearances while starting at four positions (second, third, short and leftfield). That’s a miniscule sample, but it conforms to his minor league track record, as Reynolds hit .282/.335/.420 in 943 Triple A plate appearances since first reaching the level in mid-2014.
The one thing Reyes does offer that the Mets don’t already have is speed. Though his bat and glove have declined as he has aged into his thirties, Reyes has stolen 109 bases at an 81% success rate since leaving the Mets, averaging 27 steals per season, including 24 in his poor 2015 season. The Mets as a team have stolen just 13 bases in 22 attempts on the season and the team leader in steals is Wright, who stole three bags in five attempts before landing on the disabled list. Reyes will represent a huge upgrade for Terry Collins in terms of his pinch-running options, but the in-game impact of that is likely to be minute.
To be fair, the Mets are not taking a huge gamble on Reyes. With the Rockies and Blue Jays on the hook for the more than $39 million remaining on his contract, Reyes will only earn a pro-rated portion of the major league minimum from the Mets, a total of less than $300,000 for the remainder of the season. For anyone wondering why the Mets would sign a player with a recent domestic violence arrest on his record who doesn’t represent an obvious upgrade, look no further than that minimal cost.
Similar things can be said about the Yankees’ acquisition of Aroldis Chapman this past winter. As disturbing as his behavior may have been, the fallout from that incident dramatically dropped the price of acquiring him and may have actually made him more attractive to other teams as a result. If Reyes behaved himself during the off-season, the Rockies’ Trevor Story may still be in Triple A and Reyes may still be starting games for Colorado (or taking up a spot on its disabled list). Chapman likely would have been traded either way, but the Yankees paid far less in prospects than the Dodgers were rumored to have offered before Chapman’s incident became public knowledge, and they may well come out ahead in the long run if they get a good return for Chapman at the non-waiver deadline now that his suspension and the associated confusion over his status is in the past.
Anyone expecting billion-dollar corporations to take a moral high ground when a bargain presents itself is living in a fantasy world. The Rockies only appear to have done so because Story proved to be an upgrade at shortstop. The Reds only appear to have done so because Chapman was entering his walk year and they needed to trade him as part of their rebuilding. Similarly, if Hector Olivera, who was suspended 82 games under the same policy, never does establish himself with the Braves, it will be as much because he is a 31-year-old with a troubling injury history who has never hit in the major leagues as because of the organization’s disapproval of his off-field actions. If they wind up eating his contract as a result, however, he’ll go from being an expensive mistake by the Braves to worthy gamble for another team despite the black mark on his name.
For the Mets, the reality is that their reputation will suffer more from failing to return to the playoffs than from having employed a player accused of domestic abuse. If they avoid the former fate, however, it will likely have more to do with the contributions of Nimmo or Conforto’s ability to snap out of his slump in Triple A than with any contributions they get from Reyes this season.