If new Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes is prone to recurring nightmares, I imagine his current one goes a little something like this…
“Ding,” chirps a speaker from overhead. Reyes is startled to find himself sitting in what seems to be the cabin of a stationary airplane. It’s really only the cackling of seatbelts unbuckling all around him that offers any clues. The air is too thick with smoke to see beyond arm’s length – it’s almost as if the plane has crash-landed. However, despite this, he feels compelled to stay on board and take back to the skies. For reasons he can’t explain, he knows this is not a destination at which he should disembark. But there is a man in the window seat beside him – a man not unlike himself, but taller, more powerfully built, and with eye black on his cheeks – who rises and forces him into and up the aisle to the cabin door. As Reyes is shoved out onto the jet bridge, the plane vanishes behind him.
The concourse is inhabited by a throng of people wearing purple and milling about aimlessly with their eyes downcast. They appear numb to world, their spirits crushed. But while making his way through the crowd, Reyes occasionally bumps into one of them, and upon making eye-contact, they hiss at him. Reyes feels lost, suffocated, and utterly alone. He finds a boarding pass in his pocket, but the printed destination is illegible, obscured by pine tar. No matter; any place will do. He scrambles from gate to gate, looking for somebody – anybody – who will let him board an outbound plane. Panic sets in. Eventually, he encounters a gate attendant who will accept his boarding pass. Reyes starts to make his way up the jet bridge, but then feels a tug at this arm from behind. The attendant regrets to inform him that his ticket has been cancelled. As it turns out, his baggage is too heavy…
Jose Reyes, in case you didn’t know, was a part of the package recently returned from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for superstar and former Rockies franchise icon Troy Tulowitzki. Reyes was once a great player – great enough, in fact, to earn a near-Tulowitzki-sized contract himself a few years back. These days, Reyes is a “merely good” player, and because he’s a merely good player (but still paid like a player who is great) Reyes has what some call “negative surplus value” – basically the difference between the player he is and the player he’s being paid to be. After this year, he’s still due $22M in 2016, $22M in 2017, and $4M in 2018 (the buyout of a team option that will certainly be declined.) That’s $48M owed after this season, and according to noted baseball projection expert Dan Szymborski, the man behind ZiPS, Reyes has about $20M in negative surplus value remaining on his contract. Harrison Williams conducted an analysis yielding similar results here at Rockies Zingers. The Rockies accepted this negative surplus value in order to make Tulowitzki a bit cheaper to the Blue Jays and therefore extract more prospect value in the deal.
This article isn’t about whether the Rockies got enough prospect value to make taking on Reyes worth it (though Matt Gross of Purple Row sums up my feelings pretty much exactly here). Rather, what I’d like to tackle here is what to do with Reyes now that we have him. Make no mistake: despite the obligatory General Manager-speak, the Rockies don’t actually want Reyes on this team any more than most fans do. He’s the living embodiment of the tax the Rockies paid in the Tulowitizki deal; nothing more, and nothing less. This is not to disparage Reyes himself, who by all accounts is a good man. It’s simply the case that a last-place team now clearly in rebuilding mode has no use for player of Reyes’ ilk, especially since the Rockies have not just one, but two, intriguing shortstop prospects ready to ply their trade at the highest level – if not Trevor Story, than certainly Cristhian Adames has nothing left to prove at AAA . The Rockies are better served by seeing what one or both of those kids can do than by watching Jose Reyes do Jose Reyes things.
The Rockies are so better served by that alternative that they tried to give Reyes away! They did so by exposing him to what’s called revocable waivers subsequent to the trade. Reyes went unclaimed by all other teams, who would have assumed the entirety of Reye’s contract as-is if their claim was issued and accepted. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a team who feels Reyes could help them. What it means is that there isn’t (or, at least, wasn’t at the time) a team that believe Reyes is cost effective.
The good news for the Rockies – and for Reyes himself – is that there are some market factors working in his favor. First and foremost, despite the negative surplus value, Reyes remains a useful player (contract value and on-field value being completely different animals), and there are teams currently in pennant chases for whom Reyes would represent an upgrade. Teams within grasping range of ultimate glory are – rightly and understandably – often willing to reach a little farther for a particular player than they might otherwise. Whether you want to call it “desperation” or “short-term maximization,” it’s a thing that exists. Second, despite the arrival of some high-profile shortstop prospects this year, there remains a scarcity at the position league-wide. To wit, here’s a list of upcoming free agents at shortstop (* signifies a pending contract option):
- Joaquin Arias
- Clint Barmes *
- Willie Bloomquist
- Asdrubal Cabrera
- Ian Desmond
- Alcides Escobar *
- Cliff Pennington
- Alexei Ramirez *
- Jimmy Rollins
- Brendan Ryan *
There are really only two starting-caliber players available on the open market this offseason: Asdrubal Cabrera (barely, after a pseudo-rebound in Tampa this year) and Ian Desmond. Alcides Escobar (excuse me: All-Star Alicides Escobar), will almost assuredly have his team option picked up by the Royals. Some team, because of the paucity of supply, may pretend that Alexei Ramierez or Jimmy Rollins is a starter, but wanting something to be true doesn’t mean that it actually is. Desmond was once considered to be a candidate for a huge contract, and despite showing horribly this year, he may still get one. But it’s possible that that contract becomes a Reyes-like anchor as soon as the ink dries. And at least Reyes’ contract is already more than half paid-off. Bottom-line: one can make the case that Reyes, even while representing negative surplus value, is one of the best (least bad, anyway) shortstop values available on the market.
That is true both now – on the cusp of the next (and last) trade deadline on August 31st – and this coming offseason. I’m writing this up now because Reyes’ name will be subject to much speculation over the next few days leading up to the deadline, but it could be that the Rockies best deal comes along this winter. They assuredly know this, and I have no doubt that they’ll wait to pull the trigger if need be. However, many of the teams mentioned below could potentially benefit from Reyes in both the medium and short run – again, there is desperation to exploit – and for that reason I really do expect Reyes to be moved prior to the deadline. Besides, Reyes has started openly agitating for a trade – and who could blame him? – and it’s hard for a team to stand pat with a guy once that starts happening.
Keep in mind that the Rockies return in almost all cases will be little to nothing. Teams get shiny new prospects when the player they’re trading has positive surplus value, not negative. The Reyes trade, when it happens, will be about creating future payroll flexibility and eliminating a roadblock on the roster. Theoretically, the Rockies could simply offer to pay some of Reyes’ contract. Lots of teams do this. Again, if you want a team to take your overpriced asset, you usually have to alleviate their burden a bit. But the Rockies almost never take this approach. They paid a couple million to dump Ty Wigginton on the Phillies a few years ago, but the last time they had to get rid of a big and bad contract – Mike Hampton’s – other than a few million bucks that only kind-of represented paying Hampton’s salary, the burden-alleviating took the form of accepting the other team’s bad contracts. This is instructive, I think, of Dick Monfort’s philosophical approach. And whether it’s defensible or not from a pure baseball economics perspective, it’s forgivable, I think, for an owner to be opposed, out of principle, to paying a player to play for someone else. The optics are pretty crappy.
So, barring a straight contract pay-down, what the Rockies will probably do is more or less the same thing they did in the Hampton off-loading. The player(s) they take back this time will likely also have negative surplus value – again, the whole point is that the Rockies will have to do some other team a solid to take Reyes contract of their hands – but if the incoming player is at least a little less expensive, and/or at least plays a position of greater need, that would constitute a win for the Rockies. A pitcher of any sort with an attached arm who can eat some innings would do nicely, or perhaps an outfielder if, like me, you take the view that the Rockies are likely to trade Carlos Gonzalez this offseason, and maybe Charlie Blackmon as well. (And, hey, if the Rockies take back a lot bad money in the process, maybe they will get a prospect of some note; just remember: if that happens, it’ll be because the Rockies paid in other ways.) So, in searching for Jose Reyes fits, I looked for teams either a) desperate enough for an upgrade that they won’t ask the Rockies to take a bunch of salary back, and/or b) that have bad contracts of their own that would at least be better fits in Colorado than Reyes.
So, without further ado, here are my top candidates to assume the honor and horror of playing and paying Jose Reyes, from least likely to most likely. When I discuss playoff odds, I’m relying on Fangraphs’ standings. Likewise, I’m refereeing to Fangraphs’ WAR. When I discuss remaining salaries, I’m rounding to the nearest million (wouldn’t it be nice to live that way!) and considering commitments from 2016 and beyond, not what little remains in 2015.
The Mostly Just Theoreticals
Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles have gotten very poor production from shortstop J.J. Hardy all year – and to top it off, Hardy just went on the disabled list. They have no good internal options. The Orioles don’t have a lot of salary commitments over the next few years, and could absorb Reyes’ contract if they decide it’s worth it to go big this year. They’re long shots to make noise in the playoffs – or even to make the playoffs at all – but going all-in anyway would make some sense given the number of key players about to leave them in free agency.
On the other hand, they’re… well, long shots, and depending on what direction they decide to go in this offseason, they could be in rebuilding mode themselves by October. That would make Reyes suddenly as non-sensible for the Orioles as he is for the Rockies. Also, while the Hardy injury might make them desperate enough to take on Reyes’ full contract (clearly they weren’t desperate enough earlier during the waiver period), they’d probably try to offload Hardy himself in the deal (who also has an awful contract at $29M owed after this year). That would save the Rockies some cash, but they can probably do better.
Chicago Cubs. Here’s what you need to know here: the Cubs – a bonafide World Series contender and a team with financial resources – have been playing a corner outfielder Chris Coghlan at second base. Reyes’ could handle that position on the fly at least as well as Coghlan, or he could allow the Cubs to shift Addison Russell back to second.
Here’s the other thing you need to know here: the Cubs have been playing the long game for a half-decade now, and while there will come a time for the Cubs to make a brash move to maximize their chances in the short-run, this move in particular probably isn’t that time (or player). They’re likely to be just as much a contender next year and beyond, and have a lot of middle-infield assets on the cusp. Also, not unlike the Orioles, while the Cubs could probably afford to just eat Reyes’ entire contract, they’d probably want to offload their own suddenly overpriced shortstop, Starlin Castro. Castro is owed almost as much as Reyes (about $40 over 4 years), but is still young enough (still just 25) to rebound. He makes a little more sense for the Rockies than Reyes, but not much, because he still represents a poor roster fit in the same way Reyes does. So if the Cubs insist on Castro, I’m still shopping.
Chicago White Sox. No team in the league has gotten less out of their middle infielders than the White Sox; -0.6 WAR from short stop (Alexei Ramierez) on top of -0.7 WAR from second base for a grand total of -1.3 WAR. Carlos Sanchez, who has received the majority of the reps at second base, is young and worth soaking up some playing time. Alexei Ramierez is neither. The White Sox do have top shortstop prospect Tim Anderson making his way through the minors, but Reyes would provide a decent bridge and also some immediate value to a team that has made a lot of win-now moves lately.
The White Sox, while carrying better playoff odds than you might think for a team 6 games under .500, are probably not in a position to make this move before the deadline. They’re a better match this offseason, when Ramierez will be out of the picture but their same fundamental problems up the middle will still be thoroughly present. There are two interesting candidates to come back to the Rockies: outfielder Melky Cabrera – $29M remaining over two seasons – and starting pitcher John Danks, who will be due $16M in the last year of his contract. Neither player is worth those amounts, but both would be cheaper and more useful than Reyes going forward. Danks would obviously be preferable.
New York Mets. Almost as soon as the Tulowitzki deal was made public, there was speculation about Reyes being flipped to New York for a reunion with the Mets. Almost as soon as there was speculation about Reyes being flipped to New York for a reunion with the Mets, there were rumors that the Mets weren’t interested. It’s hard to know how interested the Mets front office truly is in bringing Reyes back to Queens, but setting aside how giddy it’d make Mets fans, or any other silly emotional impetus, the fact is that Reyes would fill a need. Wilmer Flores has been playing out of position at shortstop, hitting enough in the meantime to still be a positive player, but nevertheless a poor fit. The Mets already nearly traded him. Adding Reyes would allow them to move Flores to second base, not to mention give them a more traditional lead-off option than Curtis Granderson.
A big market team like the Mets with a ticket to the playoffs all but already stamped, should do things like this, even if the net-effect upgrade is only marginal – particularly since the front office owes its long suffering fans a favor. It probably won’t happen, though. The front office can already rightly claim that it “made some moves,” providing the cover it needs to avoid taking on any additional salary. Which is a shame, because the Mets could probably get the Rockies to take back the benched Michael Cuddyer as an appropriately sized $12M offset and locker-room salve, creating a circular reunion so saccharine sweet that we’d all just faint with glee.
The Unpredictable Delusionals
Arizona Diamondbacks. Their combined production out of second base and shortstop this year totals 0.1 WAR, there are no middle infield prospects of note in their upper minors, and there are few salary commitments on the books. Plus there’s the controversy they sparked earlier this year when the gave away a top prospect in exchange for nothing other than salary relief that they suggested would be spent on… something. Well, here’s something.
The Diamondbacks have one bad contract, Aaron Hill, who is due $12M after this year. Hill fits about as poorly on the Rockies roster as does Reyes, but if eating Hill’s money is enough to get this done, the Rockies probably take it. But are the Diamondbacks really ready to pull the trigger on an expensive, win-now move? Despite the recent run of success, they’re playoff odds remain under 1%. On the other hand, the Diamondbacks’ front office has continued to present themselves as near-term contenders (LaRussa: “We’re a lot closer than people think.”) I think he’s wrong, but hey, if the Diamondbacks want to go crazy, the Rockies can help them do it.
San Diego Padres. From the very beginning, this Padres rapid rebuild has been bizarre. It became even more bizarre when, contrary to everyone’s expectations, they decided to stand pat at the trade deadline. It was one thing to fail in finding a taker for expensive veterans like Matt Kemp or James Shields. It was sort of understandable to hold onto Justin Upton if the offers weren’t better than the first round pick they’ll get for tagging him with a qualifying offer this offseason. But it made no sense at all not to move other pending free agents or the likes of closer Craig Kenbrell, a luxury for a non-contending team. Did all this mean they actually thought they were still in the hunt – like their brethren in Arizona, next year if not this one? And just like they have since Day 1 of their trading and spending spree, they still need a shortstop.
Their near-term potential might be lower than the Diamondbacks’, but they might also be even more delusional. From an on-field perspective, adding Reyes would make sense for them over the next couple of years beyond this one, provided they don’t change course dramatically yet again and tear down completely. The bigger problem in this case is that the Padres would, at least presumably, absolutely have to send substantial money back out in any deal for Reyes.
The potential solution here is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch: James Shields. The Padres would actually save money in this case (Shields is owed $65M after next year), while addressing a position of need. The Rockies would take on money, which is contrary to the premise of this whole exercise, but would be getting a pitcher of a caliber (he’s been better this year than his bottom-line numbers suggest) they could never actually sign in free agency. One of the shiny objects the Rockies would presumably be targeting with additional payroll flexibility is an durable and dependable pitcher. Well, here he is, and with only a three-year commitment. Perfect for the short-term rebuild the Rockies are apparently pursuing. Plus, it’s something positive to sell to a beleaguered fan base. Fully dissecting this scenario would require a separate article (one I might write-up if we still have Reyes on the books this offseason), but in the meantime, suffice it to say that this is the sort of outside-the-box deal I’d applaud if the Rockies made it. But, then, I’m just as delusional about my team as the Padres’ brass apparently is of their own.
The Best Bets
Los Angeles Angels. Angels second baseman – first Johnny Giavotella, and then, less than a few hours later, Grant Green – are dropping like flies. Other alternatives, such as ex-Rockie Taylor Featherston, are also on the shelf. And it’s not as if any of these options befit a contending team, anyway; the Angels have gotten a total of 0.1 WAR out of second base this season. Giavotella is expected to return, but his situation is rather mysterious, and even a healthy Giavotella isn’t as good as Reyes. With their playoff odds teetering very near 50/50, and with as much reason to try to “win now” as any team in the league, acquiring Reyes makes a whole lot of sense.
The Angels would be gambling that Reyes can transition to second base after not taking single rep there in over a decade. But Giavotella hasn’t provided good defense at the keystone either, and Reyes bat and base running alone make him a significant upgrade. The Angels can certainly afford to add Reyes’ salary. And they should – I mean, once you start handing out quarter-billion dollar contracts to 31-year-olds and choosing to eat tens of millions more because… morals or something, what’s an extra $48M for Reyes? Especially since the Angels actually have a decent amount of money coming off the books next year – and a need for a middle infielder anyway. (There are no middle infield prospects of which to speak in their upper minors.)
Still, if they and the Rockies were to agree that some salary offset is required, there is an interesting name available: C.J. Wilson. He’s due $20M next season, but that nevertheless represents a cost savings over Reyes, and while the contract is generally and rightly considered a bad one, he’s been better in his Angels tenure than you might think – certainly good enough to pitch for the Rockies and maybe even become an asset the Rockies could flip at the deadline next year. He’s injured at the moment, but will be back next year, and apparently on the outs in LA. The Rockies could probably get them to pay down that $20M if need be, and that sort of pay-down could be the grease this deal would need to get done.
Minnesota Twins. The Twinkies are in this thing, folks! Not unlike the Cubs, they’re a young team with a bright future that simply got here a little earlier than expected, and with an acute need for near-term help in the middle infield (they’ve gotten sub-replacement-level production from short stop). However, unlike the Cubs, the Twins actually represent a decent fit for Reyes both for the remainder of this year and in the near-term future beyond. Twins prospect Jorge Polanco is a MLB-caliber middle-infield prospect who has already had his proverbial cup-of-coffee, but is also widely seen more as a second baseman or utility guy in the long run. And there’s not much at all behind him until you get to Nick Gordon, a 19-year-old that won’t be ready until sometime after Reyes’ deal expires. If the Twins want to build one more contending team in the Joe Mauer era, Reyes would be a great fit.
They’re not in a position – either in terms of desperation or payroll capacity – to simply eat Reyes’ deal. But they do have an intriguing player/contract that the Rockies might take back: Ricky Nolasco. Nolasco, never one to “get dem groundballz,” isn’t a prototypically good fit for Coors Field, but he is, you know, good. Despite his poor net results in Minnesota the last couple of years, his fielding-independent numbers have been solid, as they were each of the five seasons prior to that – a period during which Nolasco averaged over 30 starts a year. He’s likely out with injury the rest of this year, but it’s not considered serious, and the fact that he’s currently on the shelf actually makes it easier for the Twins to deal him in the midst of a pennant race. The Rockies would owe Nolasco $12M each of the next two years, with a $13M team option after that. Given the net salary savings and omnipresent need for at-least-OK starting pitchers, I think the Rockies do well in this deal.
New York Yankees. If you think the Angels’ second base problem is bad, wait until you get a load of the Yankees’. I can’t decide which overused metaphor to apply: that of the black hole or revolving door, but let’s just say the richest team in the American League has had an… issue there. Stephen Drew, Brendan Ryan, Rob Refsnyder, Gregorio Petit, and Jose Pirela have combined to produce the lowest team WAR total at second base in the league: -1.4. Again, as with the Angels, Reyes would have to make a quick transition to second base, but it’s hard to envision many scenarios wherein he doesn’t upgrade the position through his offense alone.
The fit beyond this year isn’t great. Shortstop Didi Gregorius has been disappointing, but provides enough glove-first value on the cheap that he probably isn’t going anywhere. The aforementioned Refsnyder isn’t quite ready to contribute as an everyday player, but it’s reasonable to expect that he will be soon. Still, these are the Yankees, they have a gaping hole to fill right now, there is a player freely available on the market to fill that hole, and they won’t even have to give up a meaningful asset to get him. It’s true that the Yankees did not claim Reyes on waivers when they could have. But since then they’ve fallen behind the Blue Jays in the standings, perhaps upping the urgency a bit. The club has also yet to make a significant in-season move, a rarity for the Yankees. There are expectations to fill in New York, especially in a contending year coming of a non-contending one. And the only thing it’d cost them is money, a resource only limited in the vaguest sense around there. It’s no wonder they’ve already been “poking around” Reyes.
I think this is the deal most likely to happen, for minimal return – such as the classic Player to be Named Later or Cash – and no other bad contracts involved. For all the complexities and moving parts potentially involved in various Reyes deals, it’s perhaps the simplest one that makes the most sense. Besides, this one seems meant to be, doesn’t it? After all the talk, it’d only be right if the Yankees finally get their Rockies shortstop.
…Reyes, despondent, trudges back up the jet bridge, back through the zombie-like throng in the concourse. There is no hissing this time, however, because Reyes’ eyes, too, are downcast. He finds his way to the bar, and slides up onto a stool, but soon discovers that the bartender only serves Bud Light Lime, and she’s out of that, anyway. He slouches even further, if that’s even possible, and takes one last look at his worthless boarding pass before crumpling it and tossing it, hard, over his shoulder.
Slap! Reyes hears the sound of ball hitting palmy flesh and turns around to see thickly built old man with white hair, somehow smiling and frowning at the same time, holding a baseball. “Hey,” he says to Reyes, “you play ball, kid?” Before Reyes can answer, the man continues “Yeah, you play ball. For sure better than those other jerks I got. Come, let’s go.” Reyes starts to explain that he has no ticket, and quite a lot of baggage, but the man cuts him off again. “Don’t worry about your things, just head thataway.” He motions to a boarding area just off the end of the bar – Gate 27 – that Reyes was certain wasn’t there when he sat down. The gate attendant is dressed in a pinstriped suit and waves him over. Reyes, bewildered, tries to collect himself. “Go on, kid,” the man says, not so much reassuringly as impatiently, “tell ‘em George sent ya.”