Before the off-season started, we asked you guys to project how much the primary free agents would sign for this winter. The FanGraphs Crowd tabbed Jose Reyes for a six year, $101 million contract. Tonight, he signed with the Marlins for six years and $106 million, so you guys can count this as a feather in your cap — the crowd figured out what the market for Reyes would be quite well.
So, now, the question is simply whether the Marlins were wise to throw $106 million at Reyes to begin with. Paul Swydan tackled how Reyes would fit into the Marlins roster a few weeks ago, and covered those issues pretty well. So instead, let’s talk about Reyes’ value as a player, and whether giving him this much guaranteed money is a good idea.
First off, I don’t think there’s any question that Jose Reyes is legitimately one of the very best players in baseball. Despite breaking into the majors in 2003 at age 20 and struggling to hit big league pitching at a point when most guys are still working their way up through the minors, he has a career 112 wRC+ while playing a quality defensive shortstop. The average wRC+ for shortstops in baseball during Reyes’ career is 87 by the way, so you can essentially say that he’s performed at an offensive level 28 percent better than his peers in his career to date. The list of players who can sustain that kind of performance over a nine-year stretch is very small.
The numbers are even more impressive if you look at his performance levels since 2006, when he learned a modicum of plate discipline and added legitimate power to his arsenal. His wRC+ over that timeframe is 120, ranking second in baseball at the position behind only now-former-shortstop Hanley Ramirez. To put that in further context, Adam Dunn’s wRC+ since 2006 is 122. Reyes has performed at a similar offensive level to Dunn over the past six years, and he’s done it while playing shortstop.
This kind of offensive performance at a premium position is exceedingly valuable, which is why Reyes has four seasons of at least +5.8 WAR in the past six years. The devil is always in the details, though, and in Reyes’ case, the details are those other two years. It’s impossible to talk about Reyes’ value without also talking about his 2009 and 2010 seasons, where he managed just 779 total plate appearances and +3.7 WAR between both years, struggling with injuries and reduced performance even when he was on the field.
Without those injuries, Reyes could have made a case for a contract twice the size of the one he signed with Miami, but seemingly chronic hamstring problems have earned him the label of a high-risk player. The value is certainly there when he’s on the field, but his ability to stay on the field enough to justify a big contract is essentially the question that will determine whether the Marlins made the right call today. Performance isn’t the issue, as a full-throttle Jose Reyes is clearly worth in excess of $18 million per season — in his case, it’s simply a question of health.
So, how many games does Reyes need to play per season to justify his contract? To answer that, we can run a calculation based on a few assumptions. While it’s too early in the off-season to say exactly what the market price for a win is, the signings we’ve seen indicate that it’s still in the $5 million range — it’s certainly no less than $4 million, and might be as high as $6 million — but we’ll stick with $5 million for now and you can simply shift the numbers slightly in either direction if you feel that it’s closer to four or six based on your own assumptions. Inflation is harder to peg, but an assumption of 5% annual inflation over the next six years seems likely to be in the ballpark at least, and again, you can always substitute a different number if you don’t like the 5% estimate.
Here’s essentially what Reyes would need to produce to justify this contract as fair market price, based on $5 million per win and 5% annual inflation over the life of the contract:
At that price, the Marlins are essentially paying for a total of +19 WAR over the next six years. What does +19 WAR from a shortstop look like over a six year period?
Well, from 2006 to 2011, it looked a lot like J.J. Hardy — another guy who produced at a good rate while spending a decent amount of time nursing injuries. Over the last six years, Hardy managed 2,813 plate appearances, or about 470 per season. That’s about as few as you can realistically expect from Reyes, even if you think his leg problems are going to continue to haunt him going forward, and yet Hardy was able to accumulate +18.5 WAR over a six year period while averaging fewer than 500 PA per season.
That’s what a 100 wRC+ and high quality defense (+50.2 UZR) at a premium position will do for a player. Most metrics don’t value Reyes’ defense quite as highly, but he should be able to clear the league-average-hitter bar fairly easily — even the broken 2010 Reyes managed a 104 wRC+ — and a healthy Reyes is capable of far, far more. So it seems pretty clear that if Reyes racks up 2,800 plate appearances over the next six years, he’ll earn the money Miami is paying him. If he gets much over 3,000 PA, he’ll start to look like a legitimate bargain.
This is a pretty low bar to clear, honestly. Reyes could miss 40 to 50 games per season and still rack up 3,000 PA over the next six years. The Marlins have essentially signed him to a contract that gives him room to spend more than a month each year on the DL while still getting what they’ve paid for. It’s possible that they’ll get exactly that, and Reyes will produce value for five months while watching on the sidelines for an extended period each year, but I don’t think anyone has figured out how to forecast injury projections so well that we should recognize that there isn’t real potential value to be had in this deal.
If Reyes manages to stay reasonably healthy for most of the next six years, the Marlins are going to get a lot of surplus value from this contract. They’ve signed an elite player who isn’t yet 30 years old and whose skillset historically ages quite well. He doesn’t have to be the next ironhorse to earn this contract — he just has to stay away from something like a skillset-altering leg injury. Essentially, if he can avoid the Grady Sizemore career path, he’s a pretty good bet to be worth this contract and then some.
The Marlins should be commended for their willingness to take a risk on Reyes. The move isn’t without its potential downfalls, but the value is certainly there, and Reyes makes them a substantially better team.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.