It’s only June 27th, not even the halfway point of the season, and it already feels like there’s nothing left to say about Jose Reyes. He had four hits yesterday — including another triple — stole a base, scored three times, and drove in a run. In the field, he snagged a hard one-hopper in the bottom of the first inning that may have been the turning point of the game. But yesterday wasn’t even close to being his best game of the season. Let’s put it this way: Reyes is not in the top ten in the league in on-base percentage (he’s 11th) or walks, and he’s not in the top ten for home runs or RBI. Other than those four, he is in the top ten in just about every other offensive category, and leads most of them. It’s gotten to the point that I half expect a coyote to hand Reyes dynamite when he’s on the basepaths, or him to reveal accidentally that he’s discovered how to bend the rules of the Matrix.
Whatever the reason for his success, it’s becoming more and more obvious that someone is going to pay Jose Reyes a lot of money after this season. He’ll be 29 in 2012, he plays a valuable defensive position, and he’s just having a ridiculous season. People give big contracts to players like that. Reyes has fairly similar career numbers to Carl Crawford, and Crawford received a seven-year, $140 million dollar contract from the Red Sox last offseason. Derek Jeter, a nominal shortstop, is being paid $51 million dollars over the next three seasons. Troy Tulowitzki, another elite shortstop, is being paid $158 million dollars from now until 2020. So it looks like someone is going to invest over $100 million dollars in Jose Reyes this winter.
Which means that the big question the Mets need to ask themselves is this: How much money are they willing to pay Jose Reyes? And, how much money should they be willing to pay Jose Reyes? Because, as great as Reyes has been, $100 million dollars is an enormous bet to make. How many big free agent contracts can you remember that, once the contract was completed, the team said, “You know, in retrospect, that was a good decision.” Putting that many resources into one player a big risk.
But let’s handicap that risk. Here’s what I did: I made a list of players similar to Jose Reyes at age 28 — i.e., players who were decent hitters with a lot of value in their running game, and had a similar career value to Reyes through age 28. I threw out anyone from before World War I (different game), anyone who played during World War II (returning players and integration caused the talent level in the game to jump immediately afterward), and anyone killed by a pitched ball (Baseball-Reference lists Ray Chapman as the hitter most similar to Jose Reyes). I added in a few modern shortstops who had a similar value to Reyes at age 28 but weren’t as good of hitters. The list is more or less in order of Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement through their age 28 season, so the players listed before Reyes were better through age 28, the ones after him were worse.
Each player’s statistics through age 28 comes first, and their statistics from age 29-35, the next seven years, below that. (Or from age 29 through the present, if the player isn’t 35 yet.) The “Pay the Man?” question is short for “Would you be happy if you gave this player a seven-year, $126 million dollar contract for their age 29-35 seasons?” In the words of a beer commercial, here we go:
.282/.350/.479, 207 doubles, 54 triples, 162 HR, 209 steals, 146 games per season
.282/.375/.517, 165 doubles, 15 triples, 128 HR, 83 steals, 111 games per season
They may have paid him for what he did in one postseason, but Beltran actually became a better player after the Mets signed him. His stolen base and triples dropped as he slowed down, but he became a more selective player, driving pitches he liked and taking a walk if they weren’t there. Injuries have obviously been a concern the last two season, and he’s still a season away from 35, but he’s been worth the big contract.
Pay the Man? Yes.
.296/.355/.430, 150 doubles, 30 triples, 70 HR, 148 steals, 132 games per season
.303/.396/.476, 185 doubles, 35 triples, 98 HR, 197 steals, 125 games per season
Another player who became a better player as he got older. Larkin didn’t slow down like Beltran did – he stole 30 bases when he was 35 years old – but he did become more selective, with his on-base and slugging percentages going up as his batting average mostly stayed the same. Larkin won the MVP in 1995, batting .319/.394/.492 with 51 steals, and followed it up by hitting 33 home runs the next season. He had injury issues his whole career, missing significant chunks during four of his seven age 29-35 seasons, but Larkin was good enough when he was on the field that it didn’t matter.
Pay the Man? Yes.
.305/.343/.392, 131 doubles, 69 triples, 17 HR, 393 steals, 135 games per season
.269/.311/.365, 124 doubles, 68 triples, 23 HR, 239 steals, 133 games per season
Outfielder for the Royals in the 1970s and 80s. Wilson didn’t have the same power as Reyes – a punch hitter, and 12 of his 40 career home runs were inside the park – but may have been ever faster. Wilson has a similar Wins Above Replacement value to Reyes through age 28, but became a below-average player the rest of his career. He got into some trouble for cocaine, and as Bill James writes in his Historical Baseball Abstract, “. . . in the mid-1980s the Royals hired Lee May as a hitting coach. Lee May legitimized Wilson’s fantasies about being a real hitter, taught him to drive the ball hard to the outfield, so someone could run under it and catch it. His batting average dropped 50 points overnight.” This is the disaster scenario for a big money deal, but Wilson and Reyes aren’t all that similar outside the speed.
Pay the Man? No.
.289/.338/.439, 211 doubles, 96 triples, 77 HR, 358 steals, 122 games per season
Carl Crawford would go here, too: .296/.337/.444, 215 2B, 105 3B, 104 HR, 409 SB, 146 games per season. But keep in mind that Crawford played against tougher competition in the American League East and was on the field more. If you stuck Crawford in the National League, his numbers would probably be better than Reyes’.
.312/.381/.427, 98 doubles, 38 triples, 25 HR, 252 steals, 132 games per season
.291/.371/.422, 188 doubles, 40 triples, 78 HR, 256 steals, 137 games per season
A better player than Reyes at the same age, but Lofton had a later start to his career and didn’t become a regular until he was traded to the Indians at age 25. Given the center field job, he promptly led the American League in steals five straight seasons and won four Gold Gloves. Lofton’s game was based around speed like Reyes, but he had better plate discipline at the same age. Never played fewer than 110 games in a season, but only played more than 140 games five times.
Pay the man? Yes.
.277/.331/.441, 269 doubles, 81 triples, 114 HR, 248 steals, 157 games per season
.257/.321/.409, 109 doubles, 18 triples, 47 HR, 110 steals, 127 games per season
Rollins has a career .328 on-base percentage playing his home games in hitters-paradise and possessive-averting Citizens Bank Park, a number for that park which is a little below average. Most of his offensive value has come from hitting a lot of extra base hits – which he’s stopped doing – and being an effective base stealer. He’s started walking more the past two seasons, but Rollins’ OPS has declined for the fourth year in a row, he’s not the same fielder, and it’s hard to see him being a full time player into his mid-thirties. Baseball-Reference lists Rollins as the hitter most similar to Jose Reyes through age 27, though park effects mess with that a little bit. Still, Reyes is taking off at age 28, the same age Rollins was when he won the MVP in 2007.
Pay the Man? No.
.286/.348/.428, 224 doubles, 62 triples, 88 HR, 214 steals, 152 games per season
.291/.363/.450, 227 doubles, 33 triples, 119 HR, 160 steals, 146 games per season
Similar hitter to Reyes through age 28, and also had crazy hair, but was slower and more durable. Some of Damon’s power boost as an older player is the result of being a lefthanded batter in Yankee Stadium, but he did become a more disciplined hitter as he slowed down. Like Carlos Beltran and Barry Larkin, Damon became better with age, but the Yankees eventually shifted him to left field and DH.
Pay the Man? Yes.
.286/.351/.415, 192 doubles, 47 triples, 72 HR, 226 steals, 139 games per season
.281/.347/.399, 87 doubles, 18 triples, 29 HR, 69 steals, 105 games per season
Okay, the bad news: None of the three modern shortstops – Furcal, Rollins, or Renteria — hold up well on the injury front after turning 29. Furcal goes from 139 games per year to 105, Renteria goes from 145 to 121, and Rollins goes from 157 games to 127. Furcal was never as fast as Reyes – though who is – but earlier in the decade he stole bases at a similar effectiveness, going 25 for 27 in 2003 and 46 for 56 in 2005. His power decline is partially from playing his home games in Dodgers Stadium, but Furcal just can’t stay on the field.
Pay the Man? No.
.288/.345/.399, 300 doubles, 21 triples, 91 HR, 246 steals, 145 games per season
.283/.342/.396, 125 doubles, 8 triples, 44 HR, 47 steals, 121 games per season
In 2005, when Renteria was 28, he had a weird season in Boston when he made 30 errors and stopped stealing bases. He bounced back in Atlanta for two years as basically the same player he was with St. Louis, minus a running game. Randomly a World Series hero last season with the Giants. Now listed at age 35 – *rolls eyes* — Renteria is having an awful year for the Reds and looks like he’s done.
Pay the Man? No, but the answer might change depending on when Renteria’s real age 28-35 seasons took place. If his age is correct, his aging pattern is really weird: He was a good everyday player as a teenager and looks done at age 35. That’s kind of strange.
.261/.335/.423, 217 doubles, 57 triples, 138 HR, 231 steals, 143 games per season
.240/.318/.380, 56 doubles, 9 triples, 31 HR, 49 steals, 110 games per season
Blue Jays center fielder from the 1980s. Averaged 18 home runs, 34 steals, and a .353 on base percentage from 1983-1988, did a little bit of everything. Leg and back injuries derailed his career, possibly caused by patrolling center field on the hard astroturf in the Exhibition Center. Moseby was out of major league baseball at age 31 and played in Japan for a few years after that.
Pay the Man? No.
.252/.344/.433, 128 doubles, 26 triples, 88 HR, 146 steals, 142 games per season
.249/.337/.458, 202 doubles, 30 triples, 153 HR, 143 steals, 133 games per season
Similar on-base and slugging percentages to Reyes, but Cameron is a high strikeout/ high walk hitter, where Reyes is a low strikeout/low walk hitter. Still, as a center fielder, Cameron’s game is based around his legs, and he was still stealing 20 bases a year into his mid-thirties. Tremendously underrated because of his low batting averages and high strikeout totals, he hits 20 home runs every year, is high percentage base stealer, plays a good center field and plays every day.
Pay the Man? Yes. Cameron might be the most underrated player of his generation.
.286/.329/.436, 164 doubles, 61 triples, 84 HR, 272 steals, 149 games per season
.301/.359/.410, 225 doubles, 59 triples, 51 HR, 481 steals, 156 games per season
Offensively, Brock is a fairly similar player to Reyes, only with a few more strikeouts. Defensively, Brock was a left fielder who made a lot of errors and does not rate well in the advanced metrics. He never had a problem with injuries, and stole 118 bases when he was 35 years old. Rickey Henderson stole plenty of bases late in his career as well, so sometimes that holds up.
Pay the Man? No. Brock is similar offensively, but a good shortstop prevents more runs than a mediocre left fielder. If Brock was the same defensive player as Reyes, than maybe. Brock is a good example where the perception and excitement isn’t necessarily captured by the numbers.
Three of the four players better than Reyes – Beltran, Larkin, and Lofton — went on to have Hall of Fame type careers and improved with age. On the other hand, just two players worse than Reyes — Damon and Cameron — went on to be worth the money after age 28. There’s a decent number of flameouts on this list, and Larkin is the only shortstop not to fall apart in his early thirties. I don’t know if there’s something about speedy shortstops that causes them to collapse at that age, but it would be interesting for someone to research. Compounding everything, it’s hard to get a handle on Reyes’ real ability because he’s been hurt two of the past three seasons and otherworldly this one.
But even if you put the odds at 2:1 that a seven-year contract works out – work out here meaning “equal return” – for Reyes . . . is that the sort of bet you’d want to make with millions of dollars? That’s the decision the Mets need to make, and as great as Reyes is playing, it’s not an easy one.