Last week, the Marlins made an offer to every free agent with a pulse. At the heart of their “Sign Everyone!” plan is Jose Reyes, who reportedly received a six year, $90 million offer to move to Miami. While this was just an initial offer and Reyes will likely extract a bit more from whoever ends up signing him, it seems likely that he’s going to end up getting significantly less than Carl Crawford received from the Red Sox last winter.
That seems a little odd to me, given that they’re almost identical players.
Both reached the Majors at age 20 and became free agents after their age 28 seasons, and both players rely on the same basic offensive skillset to provide value. Here are Crawford’s numbers from 2002 to 2010 compared with Reyes’ same numbers from 2003 to 2011.
Low walk, high contact, gap-hitting speedsters with nearly identical offensive results over 5,000 plate appearances. You really don’t find two more similar hitters than this very often, and for them to hit free agency at the same age in back to back years makes the comparison even easier. In reality, there are only two differences that should significantly affect their value:
1. Health. Both have had leg problems and experienced periods of down performance directly related to their inability to run at full speed, but Reyes’ injury problems lingered a bit more than Crawford’s did, causing him to spend a bit more time on the DL overall. He also had a DL stint in his walk year, which Crawford did not, so there’s a recent health issue with Reyes that Crawford didn’t have.
2. Position. While Crawford was considered an elite defensive player for his position, he was still a left fielder, and those are easier to find than shortstops. While our framework shows that they’ve accumulated similar defensive value over their careers (Reyes’ UZR+POS is +60.1 compared to Crawford’s +58.9), defensive value that comes from playing an up-the-middle spot is still more easily accepted than premium defensive performance at a corner outfield spot. You don’t have to buy into something like UZR to believe that Reyes’ defense is a significant asset, so his defensive value is perhaps a bit more of a known quantity.
Obviously, the former difference works against Reyes, while the second one works in his favor. Both essentially are tied to risk tolerance, and deal with how certain teams feel about making projections of future value due to some specific uncertainty. In Reyes’ case, the uncertainty is playing time, while in Crawford’s case, it was the predictive nature of defensive metrics. Both players essentially had established themselves as elite players, but their value came with one caveat.
In Crawford’s case, that caveat didn’t stop him from landing a seven year, $142 million contract. In Reyes’ case, it seems unlikely that he’s going to get very close to that number, and could come in with an overall guaranteed dollar figure that is just 65-70% of what Crawford got. Is the health risk with Reyes so much more of a concern than the questions surrounding Crawford’s defensive value, or perhaps more likely, is Reyes suffering from the fallout of Carl Crawford’s miserable 2011 season?
Given that there’s such a natural comparison between the two, it’s not hard to imagine that teams are re-evaluating whether or not players with this type of skillset are worth investing significant money in after Crawford’s face-plant in Boston last year. If teams see Crawford as Reyes’ most comparable player in the sport, then having just watched the worst case scenario play out in front of a national audience would understandably make them a bit gun shy. Any big contract is going to come with risk, but it’s harder to justify the risk when you’re watching the last guy who just jumped out of the same airplane still fumbling around with his parachute and hoping to God that it opens pretty soon.
It isn’t often that we see salaries for similar free agents retreat from one season to the next. Given the contract that Matt Kemp just got, as well as the spending we’ve seen on lower-tier free agents to date, it seems unlikely that we’re about to see a total market reversal from last year’s established prices. Instead, it seems that Reyes is simply not getting the same offers that rolled in a year ago because Crawford was a miserable failure in his first year in Boston.
I’d argue this probably isn’t fair to Reyes, and may actually be serving to make him something of a bargain relative to other free agents. After all, at $90 million over six years, the Marlins are essentially valuing Reyes as about a +4 win player going forward. Given that he was a +6 win player in 126 games last year, that kind of contract would allow Reyes to earn the money even if he experienced significant regression and continued to miss a decent amount of time.
It’s understandable why teams would hold Crawford’s 2011 failures against a nearly identical free agent a year later, but it’s hard for me to see how Reyes’ market value could actually be $50 million below what Crawford was worth just 12 months ago. Crawford’s failures might highlight the possible downside of signing Reyes, but his collapse doesn’t mean that Reyes is going to follow in his footsteps.