At a time when baseball has a shortage of compelling players -- you'd have to get through Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay and Brian Wilson before you found such an everyday player -- shortstop Jose Reyes of the New York Mets has emerged as exactly what the game needs: equal parts excitement and mystery.
The excitement is easy to see. Reyes leads the National League in batting, hits, triples and runs and is second in stolen bases -- making him the poster player in this age when offense and slugging have been rolled back to levels not seen in almost two decades.
The mystery of Reyes is what makes him the most compelling position player in the game. Will he be traded? Can the Mets afford to re-sign him? Can they afford not to re-sign him? And, most intriguing of all, is he really this good?
What we're watching is the right player at the right time just now entering his prime and playing at full health. But keep this in mind, too: Reyes is 28, will reach 1,000 games played next week, gets on base over his career at a rate barely better than the league average (.339-.336) and has played 140 games in a season just four times. After a great body of work to judge him, he suddenly seems so much more valuable because of a ridiculously hot stretch of 23 games in which he has put up a slash line of .402/.431/.637. And every night he seems to be standing on third base before you can blink.
"Right now he's like [Barry] Bonds or [Albert] Pujols when those guys are hot," said one scout after filing his report on Reyes and the Mets. "You basically have to avoid him whenever you can, because he's on absolutely everything. It doesn't matter what you throw him.
"He's healthy and really focused right now. [Manager] Terry Collins deserves a lot of credit for having that team play hard. Carlos Beltran is playing hard. He's played himself into a valuable trade chip. And Reyes is playing as hard as anyone."
What every team must decide is whether this is just the beginning of his greatness that will be worth more than $100 million, or a window of heightened performance and focus fostered by playing in a contract year. Is he Jimmy Rollins, a championship shortstop with an MVP in his near future, or another J.D. Drew, Adrian Beltre or A.J. Burnett, with his best baseball coming in a salary drive? The first team that must make that determination is his own, with New York general manager Sandy Alderson making the final call.
"People keep saying, 'You have to trade him, you have to trade him,"' said one club source. "That's not the case at all. Sandy really only now is getting to know the person and the player. I'm sure there will come a point where we sit down and see what Jose wants. But there's nothing that says we won't try to keep the guy."
As it happened, Reyes took his game to another level once owner Fred Wilpon was quoted in
Reyes has an argument to seek Crawford money. At 28, he is one year younger than when Crawford hit free agency and, unlike Crawford, he plays a premium position in the middle of the field. Otherwise, they are similar players. Take a look at how Reyes' career numbers today compare to those of Crawford as a free agent last year:
There is only one scenario in which the Mets trade Reyes, and that is an overwhelming offer that is too good to pass up. The Mets have studied how the Red Sox have turned free-agent losses into draft picks (Pedro Martinez into Clay Buchholz, for instance) and to move Reyes would take nothing less than three top prospects, including one no-doubt first-round talent that is already major league ready.
The Mets stand just five games out of the wild card. Their attendance is down 13 percent, representing a loss of 4,233 fans per game -- the biggest decline in baseball except for the Los Angeles Dodgers. New York still has 33 home games to play after the July 31 trade deadline -- 41 percent of its gates. At a time when the cash-poor Wilpon is heavily dependent on gate receipts, can he afford to trade his best and most exciting player?
There are two teams that play out of ballparks that influence every personnel decision from the draft all the way to the major league roster: the Padres and Mets. New York has to build a team around athletic players who can cover ground and don't rely on hitting flyballs. In short, it needs players just like Reyes. He is a career .320 hitter at Citi Field with a .375 OBP and .498 slugging percentage there in 123 games. In fact, Reyes has a higher slugging percentage at Citi Field than teammate David Wright, with nearly as many triples (18) as Wright has home runs (21). The minute the Mets lose Reyes, if they don't re-sign him, is the minute they start searching for someone exactly like Reyes to replace him.
"I think they'll look at doing what they can to keep him," the scout said. "And if that's the case, then the guys they could trade are David Wright and Mike Pelfrey. I like Wright and he still has value. He's just beaten down by everything that's happened with that franchise and by the ballpark. He'll be a better player somewhere else."
The Mets plan to spend between $100 million and $120 million on payroll in each of the next three years -- a cutback between 15 and 25 percent -- so re-signing Reyes would cause some roster pruning. That's one risk associated with keeping him. Another risk would be paying a speed player great sums of guaranteed money through about age 34. The Mets would be banking on Reyes keeping his legs healthy -- the key to his value. Remember, the Cubs gave Alfonso Soriano $136 million before the 2007 season under the evaluation that he could play center field and steal bases in addition to providing power. He quickly devolved into a poor defensive corner outfielder who stopped stealing bases.
The market for Reyes is bound to be a good one. The Giants could be a stealth player, with $21 million coming off the payroll this year (but Lincecum due for a big raise) and the Barry Zito contract coming off after 2013. The Tigers, Orioles, Twins, Mariners, Angels, Reds, Nationals, Cardinals and Brewers all will have money to spend.
At some point next month the Mets are likely to engage Reyes in discussions, if only to gauge his interest in remaining with the club as weighed against the chance to shop his services. Meanwhile, they get to watch him for another six weeks -- does he stay healthy? Does he continue to hit 54 points above his lifetime average? -- and wait for other clubs to approach them about possible trades. The Mets are under no pressure to trade Reyes. The pressure comes from whether they want to make a leadoff hitter their franchise player, and just how much of a cost that commitment will require.