Jose Reyes could have and should have been one of the brightest stars in a city that’s famously tough to impress.
He brought an electric smile, a slashing bat, a rifle arm, and winged feet to the shortstop position in Queens.
He made triples his own personal plaything. There were few sights more beautiful in sports than watching Reyes rip a ball into the gap or down the right-field line, zip past first, accelerate as he sped toward second, and fly around the bag en route to a head-first slide into third.
Reyes set the New York Mets’ career record for triples just 39 days after his 25th birthday; less than two months later, he set their career mark for stolen bases. He has led the major leagues in triples four times; he owns four of the eleven seasons since 2000 with 16 triples or more.
He had 190 or more hits four times, scored 100 runs four times, averaged 57 steals per 162 games, with a success rate of eighty percent.
And yet the Mets never quite seemed to know what to do with him.
Reyes signed with the organization in 1999, when he was sixteen. At 20, they brought him to the major leagues and installed him at shortstop, where he’d played the vast majority of his games in the minors.
His rookie year ended a month early thanks to a sprained ankle, suffered when he tried to break up a game-ending double play. During the offseason, the Mets signed shortstop Kaz Matsui from the Seibu Lions, spending $20 million over three years and forcing Reyes to shift to the more dangerous side of the second-base bag.
This dubious experiment lasted one abortive season, as Reyes battled a strained hamstring that kept him out of the lineup until June. A stress fracture in his left leg set him down for six weeks in August and September, and when he returned he played more shortstop than second base.
Four years of good health followed, and Reyes celebrated by scorching the basepaths and making two All-Star teams. In the second of those years, the Mets signed him to what turned into a five-year, $34.25 million-dollar contract. Three days later, the Mets gave David Wright a deal guaranteeing him six years and $55 million.
The team wanted Reyes to know how much it valued him. And while he was in mid-celebration, it let him know how much more it valued the player to his right.
The focus always seemed to be on what Reyes couldn’t do. Yes, he could hit – but did he get on base enough to be a leadoff hitter? This was a legitimate question when he was 22, and drew 27 walks in 733 plate appearances, for a .300 on-base average. But in the six years that followed, his OBA was better than the league average for leadoff men five times. When healthy, he put himself in scoring position through extra-base hits or stealing second an average of 114 times per season.
But the Mets couldn’t leave him alone. Should he bat leadoff, or lower in the order to give him the opportunity to drive in more runs? They moved him to the three spot for 20 games in 2010; he hit .207 with a woeful .533 OPS and just six RBIs.
“When healthy” is always the vital disclaimer with Reyes. In the last two years, he has missed sixty-five games. Still, in 2011 he had a breakout season, winning the NL batting title, leading the majors in triples, posting career highs in batting, on-base, and slugging in a year when offense was down across the majors. In just 126 games, he generated 5.8 Wins Above Replacement by baseball-reference.com’s formula (6.2 by Fangraphs.com’s reckoning) to rank fifth among position players in the league (sixth at Fangraphs).
Yet even that batting title didn’t get him any love in New York. At the start of the final day of the season, he led Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun by a point, .3358 to .3345. Reyes led off with a bunt single, taking his average to .33705. Braun would need three hits – in three or four at bats – to pass him. As he had arranged with manager Terry Collins before the game, Reyes removed himself for a pinch-runner. The crowd, briefly stunned, greeted the substitution with scattered booing. Braun, playing that night, went 0-for-4, and Reyes drew criticism for winning the title on the bench.
It was an odd and perhaps fitting way for him to end his time with the Mets.
All the questions about Reyes’s durability led to owner Fred Wilpon’s comments, quoted by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker in May, that Reyes “thinks he’s going to get Carl Crawford money [seven years, $142 million]… He’s had everything wrong with him. He won’t get it.”
Wilpon was right about that. The Miami Marlins will pay him $106 million over six years, moving their own incumbent shortstop Hanley Ramirez, most likely to third base, to accommodate him. The Marlins are getting a leadoff hitter with power and speed, an exceptional offensive player made all the more valuable by his position in the field.
The New Yorkers have added a very large task to their already daunting rebuilding project. Still, the Mets will have a chance to fully appreciate what they’ve lost – eighteen times a year, in the opposing dugout of a divisional rival.