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The Mets' Jose Reyes decision, three years later: Part one

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The Mets could use Jose Reyes's unique skill set, but re-signing the shortstop would have come at a hefty cost. Here, we weigh the pros and cons of the Mets' franchise-changing decision to let their star shortstop walk.

Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, Jose Reyes left the Mets to sign a six-year, $106 million contract with the Miami Marlins. By letting Reyes walk, the Mets created holes at shortstop and at the leadoff spot, neither of which have been filled since. Those holes stand out more now that the team appears to be on the verge of playoff contention. It might be too soon to conclude whether or not the Mets made the right call in the winter of 2011, but it's worth exploring.

In part one of this two-part series, we'll examine what Reyes's absence meant to the Mets over the last three years. Part two will look ahead to the upcoming season and beyond, exploring what the Mets would look like going forward with Reyes on their roster.

To start, let’s compare what Reyes did over his last three years in Miami and Toronto to what the Mets got from their shortstops and leadoff hitters.

Reyes vs. Mets shortstops, 2012-2014: Average

G
PA
BA
OBP
SLG
wRC+
HR
RBI
R
SB
fWAR
DRS
UZR
UZR/150
Jose Reyes
132
597
.289
.342
.419
107
10
48
79
32
3.2
-12
-5.0
-5.8
Mets shortstops
162
771
.250
.315
.333
84
7
55
68
4
1.7
-6
0.8
0.8
Reyes vs. Mets leadoff hitters, 2012-2014: Average

G
PA
BA
OBP
SLG
wRC+
HR
RBI
R
SB
Jose Reyes
132
597
.289
.342
.419
107
10
48
79
32
Mets leadoff hitters
162
750
.242
.308
.334
84
7
44
89
30

Clearly, the Mets took a big hit in both aspects of their game. Reyes provided substantially more offense (.289/.342/.419, 107 wRC+) than did Mets shortstops and leadoff hitters over that span. The only areas in which Reyes did not dramatically outperform his Mets counterparts were in shortstop defense and in raw speed from the leadoff spot, thanks in most part to the contributions of Ruben Tejada and Eric Young Jr., respectively.

Tejada got the bulk of the playing time at short for the Mets and compiled -3 DRS, a 4.1 UZR, and 2.2 UZR/150, compared to Reyes’s -36 DRS, -14.9 UZR, and -5.8 UZR/150. Young, meanwhile, had the most plate appearances in the leadoff spot for the Mets—despite being on the team for fewer than two full seasons—and stole an impressive 56 bases as a leadoff hitter, compared to Reyes’s 95 over three seasons.

The next issue to explore is whether Reyes’s performance justified the money he earned. His contract was back-loaded so that he received $10 million per year in 2012 and 2013, $16 million in 2014, and $22 million per year from 2015 to 2017, with a $22 million team option or a $4 million buyout for 2018.

By most estimates, the price of one win on the free agent market has been around $5 to $7 million. The consensus is probably closer to $7 million, a figure that both Matt Swartz of the Hardball Times and Lewie Pollis of Beyond the Box Score believe to have been surpassed in 2013. To be conservative, let’s use Fangraphs’ estimates—which have hovered around $6 million—to calculate the rough monetary value of Reyes’s production since leaving the Mets. To do that, we simply multiply Reyes’s WAR totals each year by the corresponding year’s price per WAR.

Reyes’s salary vs. Reyes's value
Year Reyes's salary Reyes's fWAR Price per WAR on the free agent market Reyes's value
2012 $10 million 4.1 $6.3 million $25.8 million
2013 $10 million 2.1 $6.0 million $12.6 million
2014 $16 million 3.3 $6.0 million $19.8 million

The first three years of Reyes’s contract were clearly a huge bargain for the teams paying his salary. From 2012 to 2014, Reyes was worth in excess of $20 million more than the $36 million salary he received. Had the Mets re-signed Reyes, they probably would have had to forgo signing free agents like Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch, Ronny Cedeno, and Shaun Marcum, which would have only been an added benefit. Despite making almost exactly the $20 million combined that Reyes did from 2012 to 2013, those free agents produced a total of just 2.0 fWAR, compared to Reyes's 6.2 fWAR.

As for 2014, having Reyes on the payroll could have come at the expense of Bartolo Colon and Chris Young. Those two players combined made almost exactly the $16 million that Reyes made, but they produced less than half of what Reyes did on the field—1.5 fWAR compared to 3.3 fWAR. Alternatively, Curtis Granderson—who, despite making $13 million, produced just 1.0 fWAR in his debut season in Flushing—could have been the odd man out instead.

While the Mets missed having Reyes’s production and team-friendly contract for the last three years, what difference would he have really made to the team? The Mets were not playoff contenders in any of those years, and actually got respectable production from their shortstops in both 2012 and 2014. To approximate how much better the Mets would have been with Reyes as their shortstop, we can simply calculate the difference between Reyes’s production, by WAR, and that of Mets shortstops. And, to account for the games that Reyes missed, we can add a rough estimate of what Reyes’s backups would have done in his place during those games.

For example, assume that Reyes produced 3.0 fWAR in 120 games, while Mets shortstops produced 2.0 fWAR in 162 games. Then, assume that some combination of those Mets shortstops would have filled in for Reyes during the 42 games that he missed; based on their production over a full season, Reyes’s replacements would likely have produced around 0.5 WAR in those 42 games. Therefore, the difference between the Mets with Reyes and the Mets without Reyes would have been about:

(3 fWAR + 0.5 fWAR) – 2 fWAR = 1.5 fWAR

In other words, the Mets would have been about two wins better with Reyes than they were without him. Here’s how it played out in the real world:

Projected Mets wins with Reyes as their shortstop
Year Mets win total without Reyes Reyes's fWAR Projected fWAR of Reyes's backups Mets shortstops' fWAR Additional Mets wins with Reyes Mets win total with Reyes
2012 74 4.1 0.0 2.9 1.2 75
2013 74 2.1 0.0 -0.1 2.2 76
2014 79 3.3 0.2 2.1 1.4 80

According to these figures, Reyes's absence cost the Mets about four to five wins over the last three seasons. He could, at best, have brought the team closer to .500, but never anywhere near playoff contention. It’s even possible that this four-to-five-win estimate is too high. After all, it assumes that the Mets would have signed Reyes in addition to the mildly productive free agents mentioned earlier. However, given the Mets’ financial situation, it’s more likely that they would have signed Reyes instead of those free agents. Had the Mets replaced Francisco, Rauch, Cedeno, Marcum, Colon, and Young—and their combined 3.5 fWAR—with Reyes and a handful of replacement-level players making the league minimum, the team might have only improved by one or two wins in total.

Therefore, you could argue that, even in the three years that Reyes was paid below market value, the Mets were wise to invest their money elsewhere. Reyes would not have made the Mets contenders, and his departure allowed the team to build a more balanced roster by adding several established big-league free agents.

On the other hand, maybe the team would have been better off keeping Reyes for the long term and using those extra roster spots to audition minor leaguers. It’s hard to imagine that the Mets would have been any worse off had they given Shaun Marcum’s starts to Collin McHugh or Chris Young’s at-bats to Matt den Dekker.

However you parse the last three years, what really matters is what happens over the next three. From 2015 to 2017, Reyes will earn $22 million per year, as the Mets move closer to that sweet spot on their win curve where any additional wins could put them into playoff contention. This is where things get interesting. In the second and final installment of this series, we will explore whether—and by how much—Reyes might have improved the Mets in the years to come.