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Economics of Baseball: Jose Reyes

This is a picture of Jose Reyes with his hand in the air for some reason. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
This is a picture of Jose Reyes with his hand in the air for some reason. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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On August 28th, 2003 the Mets beat the Braves 3-1 behind seven strong inning from Al Leiter and two home runs by Jose Reyes, the fourth and fifth of his career. What's amazing to me is not that a 20 year old, lead-off hitting SS who came into the game hitting .309/.333/.421 hit two homers and drove in all three Mets runs, it's that Jose Reyes was playing major league baseball in 2003. He's been in the majors for nine years! Seems like yesterday he was a top prospect.

Reyes' 2003 season got a late start, he didn't make it to the big leagues until June 10th. His season was also cut short by an ankle injury and he failed to see the field in September of that year. Still the 69 games he did play in were rather impressive. He hit .307/.334/.434, stole 13 bases and 16 attempts, and left little to be desired with his glove at SS. Mets fans must have thought they were witnessing the birth of a super star.

Dreaming on Reyes at that point was completely justified. From 1901-2003, there were four shortstops that did better than Reyes' 1.8 rWAR during their age 20 season: Alex Rodriguez, Travis Jackson, Arky Vaughan, and Alan Trammell. You have two hall-of-famers, one player with a legitimate hall of fame case, and Alex Rodriguez, whose play has been unquestionably hall-worthy. All four of those players needed at least 500 plate appearances to do better than 1.8 rWAR, Reyes got there in 292. The next on the list is Robin Yount, with 1.0 rWAR...over 690 PA's. Reyes might have had the 2nd* most productive age-20 season by a SS in the history of the game if he'd managed to get on the field for 160 games.

*I doubt anyone will ever top Alex Rodriguez's 9.4 rWAR in 1996.

Then in 2004 Reyes battled back troubles and missed 6 weeks during August and September, failing to reach 300 PA's for the second consecutive year. It wasn't until his third major-league season, 2005, that he was able to avoid injuries and stay on the field. He was only 22 years old at the time, but he led the league in plate appearances, triples, and stolen bases. His .300 on-base average--fueled primarily by him drawing only 27 walks in 733 trips to the plate--wasn't pretty, but he showed enough to keep dreaming.

Reyes' first three years in the big leagues were a microcosm for his career to date. When he played he showed, though not without limitations, flashes of hall-of-fame worth talent. However, he wasn't always healthy during his early 20's, which would eventually prove to be an equally important indication of his future. Just not before he warded off injuries and had one of the more impressive 3-year stretches for a young SS in recent memory.

Reyes' age 23-25 seasons would place him squarely on a hall of fame career path. He not only stayed healthy, but learned to take a walk, resulting in three straight 5+ win seasons. After 2008 he was sitting at 20.5 rWAR. Ten shortstops have done better through their age 25 season. Five of them are in the Hall of Fame: Arky Vaughan, Cal Ripken, Travis Jackson, Joe Cronin, and Robin Yount. Three of them are still active: Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Hanley Ramirez. Reyes was quickly becoming one of the better players in the game, coming off a trio of 5+ win seasons, just now entering his theoretical baseball prime, and an integral part of an impressive core group of Mets players.

Then the wheels fell off. Three leg injuries limited Reyes to 36 games in 2009, his age 26 season. That wasn't supposed to happen. As Reyes went so did the Mets--the team won only 70 games after averaging over 89 wins since Reyes had become a full-time player. He returned to full-time duty in 2010--playing in 139 games and hitting well enough--but he wasn't quite the same player. He was unable to use his speed on the base paths as well as he previously had or defend like he did during his 3-year run of dominance.

Reyes seems to be fully recovered from the injuries that plagued him in 2009. He has played in every one of the Mets' games and leads the league in plate appearances, steals, doubles, and triples. He's walked as much as he's struck out and is hitting a robust .315/.366/.446, something nearly every team would take from their SS. Yet the Mets are still 12-18 and their once upon a time top prospect is set to become a free agent at the end of the year. We can only speculate about whether or not the Mets will have the financial resources to re-sign Reyes, but considering how brilliantly he's played when healthy and the fact that he'll be 28 years old when he signs his next contract, he's in line for a huge deal if he can put together another great season.

Now that Reyes is this close to free agency he's likely to test the market even if he ends up back with the Mets. If the new CBA eliminates draft pick compensation for departed free agents the Mets could lose Reyes at the season's end and receive nothing in return, which is why I'd be looking to trade him to a contender. Reyes is currently playing like the player everyone expected him to be when he was the #3 prospect in all of baseball. Given his injury history there's no telling how long that will last. If Reyes is going to test the free agent market anyway the Mets might as well get a couple of prospects for him now and try to lure him back to New York over the winter, rather than run the risk of him hurting himself again or signing elsewhere and leaving the Mets with nothing to show for it. With just over $9 million left on his contract, a contender would likely be willing to part with at least a top-50-or-so pitching prospect or a top-100 hitting prospect to rent Reyes for the remainder of the season. Reyes' trade value won't rise as the season moves along, but it can certainly decline, either because of an injury or just because two fewer months of control means a few fewer wins going to the contender. While acting now will send a less-than-ideal message to the fanbase, if the Mets sell the move correctly they should still be able to sell tickets, and sell a lot more in the future if the prospect(s) they acquire work(s) out.