Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ellsbury for Reyes? Just say no

Jayson Stark this week broke down the Mets' candidates for trade if they decide to blow it up and start over again. Carlos Beltran, Francisco Rodriguez, Johan Santana and David Wright probably aren't options. Jose Reyes probably is:

That brings us to Reyes, just by process of elimination. But he isn't quite the healthiest man on the planet, either. And even if he was, ask yourself this: Could the Mets really convince themselves to trade a player like this -- who is this talented, who's still only 26 years old and who is signed at highly affordable dollars for the next two years?
Well, three of the executives we polled said the Mets have to suck it up and do exactly that. But it was far from unanimous.
"They'd better think twice before they move that guy," said an official of one team. "Guys like that are hard to find. The reputation he's got now is, he doesn't want to play. But look at the games played before this year -- 159 last year, 160 in '07, 153 in '06, 161 in '05. So this guy plays. Sorry. No way I'm trading him if I'm them. Absolutely no way."

Reyes, as you might know, is a shortstop. The Red Sox, as you might know, haven't had a shortstop upon whom they could rely since, oh, 2003.

On the Sons of Sam Horn message board, in fact, a discussion has raged for two weeks about whether the Red Sox ought to explore trading dynamic center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to the Mets for Reyes. Omar Minaya very well might give Theo Epstein a call sometime in October or November and see if he's interested in such a swap.

A month or two ago, such a deal might have made sense.

But not now.

Ellsbury has looked as good in the last month as he has in any month in his Red Sox tenure. His on-base and slugging numbers weren't as high in August as they were in June or July, but he drew a season-high nine walks and showed a willingness to work counts he's taken two years to figure out. He's actually hitting .297 this season after the count has started at 0-1, and he's hitting .330 after the count has gotten to 0-2.

Think about that: When he stands and takes two strikes and starts his at-bat from there, he's hitting .330. Even when the 0-2 pitch is the action pitch, he's hitting .268.

For the sake of comparison, Dustin Pedroia takes the first pitch more than any other Red Sox pitcher and is hitting .251 if the count starts at 0-1 and .171 if the count starts at 0-2.

Add that to his recent defensive heroics -- his UZR numbers notwithstanding -- and it seems Ellsbury is developing into the type of player the Red Sox imagined he would. There's always a danger in small sample size, but when the thing you're measuring is plate approach and not production, that danger shouldn't be as great.

The only knock on Ellsbury is his on-base percentage: He doesn't get on base the way a leadoff hitter should. The average American League leadoff hitter has an on-base percentage of .354, and Ellsbury right now is at .345.

Reyes, though, isn't an improvement in that area. The 26-year-old shortstop -- he's just two months older than Ellsbury despite his lengthy major-league career -- has never finished a season with an on-base percentage better than .358.

You could argue that Reyes, at his age, has just as much room to improve as Ellsbury. But the arc for a player who already has more than 3,500 plate appearances isn't going to be nearly as signficiant as it is for a player still a few plate appearances shy of 1,200.

Both players are capable of stealing 50 or 60 bases a year. Neither are sensational defenders: Ellsbury might yet be better than his UZR number suggests, but that only would draw him even with Reyes as a slightly below-average defensive player.

But any potential deal comes down to two key points:
1. Cost.
2. Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Ellsbury will earn the minimum for another season and only then start to climb the arbitration ladder. Reyes will earn $9 million in 2010 and has either a $11 million option or a $500,000 buyout due him in 2011. He'll be a free agent after that.

Cost shouldn't be too much of an issue for a team that ate $13 million on the contract of Julio Lugo and took $5 million gambles on both Brad Penny and John Smoltz. But it still makes no sense to pay an extra $8 or $10 million on a player who represents only a marginal upgrade over what you have.

The reason Ellsbury represents only a marginal upgrade is because the Red Sox still will have to find a center fielder. If they trade Ellsbury for Reyes straight up, they've filled their hole at shortstop (and left Jed Lowrie without a position) but opened up another hole in center field -- a hole that's going to be even tougher to fill given the hole Jason Bay's departure might leave in left field.

Unless you like the idea of a Josh Reddick-Bobby Abreu tandem or a Ryan Kalish-Mike Cameron tandem -- mix and match if you wish -- the Red Sox probably are better off with Ellsbury in center field and Lowrie at shortstop.

It makes sense for the Mets to trade Reyes this offseason in an effort to rebuild. There's no reason, though, the Red Sox have to help them out.

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