It's been over twenty months since Jose Reyes, the best shortstop the Mets organization has ever developed, decided to walk away and sign his name on the dotted line with Jeffrey Loria's Miami Marlins. In that time, the Mets have given the majority of the playing time at shortstop to two guys – Ruben Tejada and Omar Quintanilla. They haven't gotten much in the way of answers from either, making the position much more of a question mark going forward.
Currently lacking an answer at the big league level and with no options ready in the minor league pipeline to step up soon (Wilfredo Tovar is probably the closest at Double-A Binghamton), the Mets have to figure out what they should do to fill that spot going forward. They have a little over a month to test out their options this season but this offseason appears to be very important in filling that hole, especially if they plan to compete in 2014.
What to do for the rest of the 2013 season
This should be pretty simple but whether you think Ruben Tejada is the future at the position or not, the Mets are much better served giving Tejada the majority of the reps for the remainder of the season over current starter Omar Quintanilla. Has Tejada performed well in Triple-A Las Vegas? Not particularly, as his .262/.316/.320 line in the hitter's paradise of the Pacific Coast League likely doesn't translate to much better than the .209/.267/.262 line he put up earlier this season in the major leagues. But it's not as if Quintanilla has clearly been great on either side of the ball, despite Terry Collins' recent claims. To put it simply, Tejada is likelier to offer you more value going forward because Quintanilla is already a finished product and Tejada at 23 is not.
There's also the idea floating around that Tejada should be taught a lesson because he showed up merely on time to spring training in 2012 and then showed up to camp out of shape in 2013. He fumbled his opportunity to seize the job long term and he should be punished for these transgressions! If the organization truly thinks that Tejada has taken it easy since being handed the full-time job after Reyes' departure, then the idea of giving Tejada a "wake up call" or a "kick in the pants" probably wasn't a bad one. But Tejada has been in Triple-A since July 2nd and today is August 19th. Haven't we kicked him in the pants enough? Based on the facts we have, the punishment seems to be out of line with the "crime" at this point. Seeing what Tejada can give you should be a priority for the organization.
Let's not forget that for all of his faults both on field and off, Tejada has had over 1300 major league plate appearances by the age of 23 and performed ably in them prior to 2013. Here's a little offensive comparison of two young shortstops, both of whom have struggled at the plate this season:
Player A is Ruben Tejada. Player B is 24-year old Rangers' shortstop Elvis Andrus, who was given an 8-year, $118 million contract extension prior to this season. Now, Andrus certainly offers more than Tejada in terms of defense and speed but strictly offensively, they haven't been terribly different players with the bat through this season. Throwing in the fact that Tejada won't even turn 24 years old until October 27th and he still gets paid the league minimum, that's not a player you should be happy to bury, especially when the next option is a 31-year old journeyman like Quintanilla.
It would be nice to see whether the Mets can rely on Tejada going forward as a piece on the major league team next season, even if it's just as a backup infielder. There's obviously some ability in there, certainly more upside than Quintanilla based on age and previous performance, and you're not going to learn anything more with Quintanilla playing and Tejada in Las Vegas or sitting on the big league bench.
What to do in 2014 and beyond
So after all of those words, does this mean Tejada should be given the starting shortstop job once again? That's hard to say given his struggles early on in 2013 and while you'd figure Tejada's upside is certainly higher than Quintanilla, how high is it compared to a league average starting shortstop? And does his down year portend a decline in his skill set? If the Mets are serious about trying to field a contending team in 2014 (and with the pitching they look to have in place, they should be), shortstop would be one of the best places to try to find an upgrade outside of the corner outfield slots (and perhaps first base if you've completely given up on Ike Davis). Of course, the biggest issue is that it's hard to find good shortstops. That's an asset that teams typically hang onto with the jaws of life.
Just for reference, Tejada and Quintanilla have combined for a .255/.316/.320 line the last two seasons, good for a .284 wOBA that would place them in the bottom 5 of the major leagues among shortstops over that span (their overall line was slightly higher in reality once you add in the decent work of Ronny Cedeno in 2012). Their 1.9 combined fWAR these last two years would tie them with the Cardinals and Astros, and place them just ahead of the Reds and Mariners at the bottom of the big league shortstop ranks. A lot of that damage has come in 2013, where both guys have a combined worth of -0.4 WAR. For Tejada, the question becomes which sample is real and which isn't? Tejada flashed his ability by putting up just slightly below league average offensive lines in 2011 (99 wRC+) and 2012 (92 wRC+), both fine for a shortstop. Then again, he wouldn't be the first player in baseball history to see his skills erode at a young age either. It should be noted that a lot of his gains in those seasons were due to some very high line drive rates (25.7% in 2011 and 30% in 2012). Tejada needs to hit line drives and groundballs to be successful but can he keep hitting line drives at a similar rate to stars like Joey Votto (29.2%) and Joe Mauer (26.1%)? Seems incredibly unlikely. If those line drive rates are unsustainable, you probably end up with something closer to 2013 Ruben Tejada, where his 19.1% line drive rate essentially torpedoed his average on balls in play and in turn, his offensive value.
With all of these questions, not even broaching that Tejada seems to have royally pissed somebody in the organization off by being late to camp last year, it seems to imply that the Mets' 2014 Opening Day shortstop is not currently in the organization. So let's assume that Ruben Tejada isn't relied on as the starting shortstop next year and instead makes the club as the backup middle infielder in place of Justin Turner. What are the Mets' options for a starting player in that case? You're not going to find any stars on the free agent market this offseason but assuming the Mets are open to spending some money, there are three starting caliber shortstops that will likely be out there in the Tigers' Jhonny Peralta, Boston's Stephen Drew, and Tampa Bay's Yunel Escobar.
Here is what our Chris McShane wrote about Peralta last month:
Jhonny Peralta: He’ll be 32 next year, but the defensive metrics have rated him very well at short. He’s been up and down a bit as a hitter, but there’s no doubt he has power, particularly compared to many of his peers at the position. He’s currently finishing up a three-year, $18 million contract with the Tigers that looks like a relative bargain.
Peralta could be an attractive option for the Mets especially if his price drops thanks to the Biogenesis suspension that will cost him the rest of this season.
Chris also had this to say about Drew, who was one of the Red Sox moderate free agent signings last offseason:
Stephen Drew: Alderson and Mike Francesa spent a lot of time talking about the Red Sox’ moderate acquisitions last winter, and Drew was another one of them. He’s three years removed from his best season with the Diamondbacks, and he’s struggled to get on base and stay healthy ever since.
Drew has had injury issues at times but he's another guy who would help improve the Mets' shortstop spot, as he's hit .247/.330/.424, good for a .331 wOBA and an above average 103 wRC+. Drew's mix of a little power, walks, and above average defense at shortstop has made him worth over 2 wins this season for the first place Sox and they have top shortstop prospect Xander Bogaerts just about ready at Triple-A to replace him.
The 30-year old Escobar should be familiar to Mets fans from his days with the Braves. He's had issues in the past in both Atlanta and Toronto but he's also been pretty effective on the field, hitting .280/.350/.388 for his career while playing consistently plus defense. He's been worth over 3 wins this season according to Fangraphs and probably wouldn't break the bank.
Beyond the free agents, the trade market could provide some options and the Mets do have pitching depth to deal from. This is all complete speculation but we know Texas is one team that has extra shortstops, though it'll certainly take a lot to acquire one of Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar. The Diamondbacks have 22-year old Chris Owings who has hit .331/.359/.481 this year as one of the youngest players in the PCL. Triple-A Reno is a strong hitter's environment and his plate discipline numbers have often been ugly but he's been heralded for his defensive abilities, has some pop for a shortstop, and appears to be blocked on Arizona's infield long term by Didi Gregorius and Aaron Hill.
Looking at some veteran options, it seems like the rebuilding White Sox would be willing to move Alexei Ramirez's contract, though he certainly hasn't been great offensively the last two seasons. Over on the north side, it might be worth a call to Theo Epstein to gauge how much 23-year old Starlin Castro would cost coming off of a disastrous year and with a number of excellent shortstop prospects sneaking up from behind. And finally, who knows what the Blue Jays plan to do next year after they flopped this season but what are the chances that they'd look to get out from under Reyes' contract and what would it cost? Reyes has put up a solid .291/.348/.444 line but he also missed a lot of time with an ankle injury and that contract gets quite expensive starting in 2015. Still, wouldn't it be nice to see him reunited with David Wright for a few more years?