SEC wrangling about stadium financing and long history of cobbling together a club on a couch coin budget aside, the Miami Marlins proved they were serious about significantly boosting payroll by signing shortstop Jose Reyes to a six-year, $106 million deal with an option for 2017 that could increase the total financial commitment to $120 million.
To be sure, signing Reyes through at least age 34 is fraught with risk. He has suffered from chronic hamstring problems dating back to his early twenties, including DL stints for the issue in 2004, 2009 and 2011. The 28-year-old has played 295 games out of a possible 486 over the past three seasons, or about 61 percent.
But it's also true that Reyes is a true franchise player when he's on the field. The switch-hitter has a .306 average, a .352 OBP and a .452 slugging percentage since '09, with a .355 Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) bested only by Troy Tulowitzki (.396) and Hanley Ramirez (.374) among shortstops. Reyes' bat has been about 16 percent better than those of his shortstop peers (.306 wOBA), making him immensely valuable even though advanced defensive metrics suggest he's not covering as much ground in the field as he once did.
Reyes likely won't maintain his career-best .386 wOBA in 2011, which was largely the result of a 40 point boost in batting average on balls in play (.353 BABIP last year, .314 career). But he did improve his already-stellar contact ability, cutting his strikeout rate to seven percent from 10.7 percent in 2009-2010. The reason? Better plate coverage against "soft" stuff -- curveballs, sliders and changeups. That was especially the case on breaking and off-speed pitches thrown inside:
Reyes swung and missed 25.5 percent of the time against soft stuff from 2009-2010, but just 17.3 percent in 2011. On soft stuff thrown inside, his miss percentage dropped to 21 percent from 30 percent. With fewer whiffs, his wOBA versus soft stuff improved to .308 from .245 (the MLB average is .273).
Given Reyes' history of leg injuries and time missed, it would be quixotic to think he is going to be a 140-150 game-a-year shortstop as he soon exits his twenties. But, as Fangraphs' Dave Cameron points out, Reyes' contract basically values him as a star-level player who will appear in 110-120 games per year. Plus, research by Tom Tango indicates that speed players like Reyes tend to age better than the general baseball population.
Cameron estimated that, adjusting for inflation, Reyes would need to post around 19 Wins Above Replacement over the next six years to make good on his contract. How likely is that? To get a rough idea of how Reyes could age, I turned to Baseball-Reference's Similarity Scores. Here are his most statistically similar players through age 28, as well as their performance from age 29-34. Rollins and Furcal haven't reached 34 yet, so I substituted projections from The Hardball Times' Oliver forecasting system:
Sources: Baseball-Reference, The Hardball Times
*= Oliver Projections from Brian Cartwright's projection system at THT
These six middle infielders averaged 4.1 WAR at age 29, 2.6 WAR at age 30, 2.5 WAR at age 31, and 4.2 WAR at age 32. With the Oliver projections for Rollins and Furcal included, they average 1.7 WAR at age 33 and 0.7 WAR at age 34. So overall, that's an average of 16 WAR during ages 29 to 34, with star-level performances from Trammell and Sandberg, average to above-average work from Rollins and Furcal, and something less than that from Templeton and Fernandez. There's plenty of variance here, but history suggests 15-20 WAR during the life of Reyes' contract is reasonable.
Reyes' signing also means that Hanley Ramirez must find a new position. Few shortstops have rated as poorly as Ramirez -- he's been about seven runs worse per 150 games than an average player at the position over the past three seasons, per UZR -- but he could fare better at third base. The Fans rate his arm as strong, if not exactly accurate, and Fielding Bible Plus/Minus Data indicates that most of his defensive woes come on balls hit to his right. That would likely make Matt Dominguez's standout glove and questionable bat trade bait.
Obviously, no $100+ million contract comes without significant risk. Reyes could go bust in South Beach, betrayed by his aching hamstrings or forced to move down the defensive spectrum. But Miami seems to have at least in part accounted for Reyes' dubious health history in this deal, and other comparable Expansion-Era middle infielders have produced at a level necessary from age 29-34 to make Reyes' pact look like a market-value deal with some upside.