So one of the feel-good stories surrounding the Mets so far this season has to be the play of Ruben Tejada.
Tejada has a slash line of .318/.362/.384, good for an OPS+ of 108. That’s good for fifth among regular shortstops in baseball. Add in above-average defense, and Tejada has been a valuable performer at pre-arbitration money.
The story supposedly got better yet when comparing Tejada to Jose Reyes, particularly early on. Following a three-game sweep of the Marlins by the Mets, Ruben Tejada was hitting .310/.366/.405 on April 29; Jose Reyes, on that same day, was hitting .205/.276/.321. And Reyes was not the same price as Tejada; he’s in the first year of a six-year, $106 million contract. Reyes is also 29; Tejada is 22. Mets win, right?
Well, not so fast.
Tejada has good season numbers, but there are a couple of major caveats here. One is that he’s fifth among SS in OPS+, but only if the minimum playing time is set at 50 games. He missed 45 games this season due to injury. Ironically, the major worry about Reyes was supposedly his durability, but Reyes missed that much time only once in his entire career with the Mets, back in 2010 after the team misdiagnosed his injury. Reyes has played in 95 of Miami’s 96 games this year.
Since April 29, Reyes is hitting .287/.353/.407, which is right in line with all of his Mets seasons, save his outlier 2011. Sure, the games before April 29 count as well; but the idea that Reyes needed a month to get acclimated to his new surroundings, and the pressure inherent in his new contract, doesn’t seem improbable.
Still, he hasn’t been as brilliant as he was last year. But it was argued here that Reyes needed simply to produce as he had throughout his Mets tenure to be worth that six years, $106 million contract. Any seasons like his 2011 would simply increase the value he provided further.
Meanwhile, Tejada has continued to hit as he did before he got hurt. But the improvement over last year, where he was slightly below league average overall (though not at his position), has been batting average on balls in play driven. He was at .331 last year; .385 this year. He’s hitting more line drives, but he’s hitting more fly balls as well. A normalized BABIP probably puts Tejada around where he was last year: a league average hitter, a tick above average glove. That’s valuable at shortstop, to be sure.
As for Reyes, his performance last year was helped by BABIP, though not as much as Tejada. He was at .353 last season, .312 in his career. So far in 2012? He’s at .288, suggesting that a normal BABIP for him would push his production above league average. He’s been slightly below average with the glove, according to UZR.
Of course, Reyes has the added dimension of speed that Tejada lacks. Reyes has stolen 21 bases in 26 attempts this year; 17 of 19 since April 29. Tejada has a single steal this year.
The other major factor to consider going forward is whether given his limited tools, if Tejada has an upside greater than his current form. His success at an early age argues for it; his tools argue against it. Reyes obviously has better seasons in his past than Tejada is likely to put up, but past results do not guarantee future ones; just ask Jason Bay.
Ultimately, the Mets would have been better off keeping Jose Reyes in 2012 for a simple reason: he’s a starting-quality talent. The choice never had to be Reyes or Tejada, other than for financial reasons. Keep Reyes, move Tejada to second base, trade Daniel Murphy for something the team needs. Keep Reyes, play Murphy at second, trade Tejada to a team in need of a shortstop. Keep Tejada and Murphy, flip Reyes at the deadline for some young prospects. All of these are better options than letting Reyes go for nothing.
Meanwhile, in 2012, Ruben Tejada has been worth $6.5 million so far, according to Fangraphs. That pace is likely to slow. Jose Reyes has been worth $7.8 million so far, and that pace is likely to quicken.
Leaving aside the benefits of keeping their most popular player, the Mets would be a better team in 2012 with Jose Reyes on it.