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Marlins take good risk in signing Reyes

Jose Reyes doesn't have to repeat his 2011 performance to make this a good signing. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Everybody kept the saying the Miami Marlins had to ante up a little more if they wanted to sign Jose Reyes.

Now that they raised their stakes to $106 million to bring the shortstop to Miami -- well, it seems like a lot of money for a who guy hit seven home runs and missed 36 games in 2011.

That’s a bit of hyperbole, of course; even missing 36 games, Reyes was one of the most valuable players in baseball. FanGraphs.com ranked Reyes as the 15th-best position player in the majors, Baseball-Reference had him at No. 13. With the number of topflight shortstops at a minimum right now, Reyes’ leadoff skills and speed made him a premium free agent.

The Marlins didn’t need a shortstop, not with three-time All-Star and 2009 NL MVP runner-up Hanley Ramirez under contract through 2014. What they did need was a third baseman, after their third basemen hit just six home runs and combined for a .662 OPS, 23rd in the majors. Ramirez will slide to third, where Ozzie Guillen hopes he rebounds from his own injury issues in 2011, when he was limited to 92 games and hit just .243, 70 points below his career average entering the season.

Obviously, after missing 191 games the past three seasons, Reyes comes with enormous health risks. During the 162-game schedule era, which began in 1961, only 13 shortstops have averaged 140-plus games per season from ages 29 to 34. Not surprisingly, none of them had the extensive injury history that Reyes has had prior to their age-29 seasons. Even ignoring 2009, when he played just 36 games, Reyes has missed 65 games the past two seasons. It seems fair (and logical) to assume Reyes will miss an average of 30 games a season over the life of this contract -- or more than an entire season’s worth of games. That’s what kept the Mets, and presumably other teams, from matching the Marlins’ offer of six seasons.

There are couple more red flags to raise about Reyes. First, his .337/.384/.493 easily established career highs in all three triple-slash lines. This was primarily due to a .353 average on balls in play, well above his career mark of .314. The question here: Was there a new approach or something in the numbers that showed he was an improved hitter in 2011? Check some of his 2011 rates versus his career percentages:

Line-drive percentage: 21.2 percent in 2011 versus 20.2 career.

Walk rate: 7.3 percent in 2011 versus 6.9 percent.

Strikeout rate: 7.0 percent in 2011 versus 10.5 percent.

Reyes struck out less often and walked slightly more often, but that didn’t necessarily mean his plate discipline was improved -- he actually swung at 32 percent of pitches that were outside the strike zone in 2011, higher than his career mark of 26 percent. What he did was make contact more often on those swings -- 83 percent versus a career rate of 72 percent.

And a fair share of those swings resulted in hits. Maybe it was a new-found ability to put those pitches in play and hit them hard somewhere. But it also could have been a guy who simply had a red-hot May and June. He didn’t hit as well after his initial injury in early July; yes, that could have been lingering effects from the tweaked hammy, or a guy just leveling off towards his true ability.

So while I think it's quite likely Reyes just had a career season at the plate, Reyes doesn’t have to hit .337 and post a .384 on-base percentage to be a great player. He was one of the best players in the National League from 2006 to 2008, when he hit .292 with a .355 OBP. Since 2006, there have been only 39 shortstop seasons with a .350-plus OBP, or about six per year. If Reyes can get on base at that clip, with his speed and defense, he’ll remain one of the top players in the league and his $100 million contract will be justified ... even if he does play just 130 games per season.

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Quick note on that defense: Reyes doesn’t grade out as terrific defender, despite his strength and speed -- he's plus-8 in Defensive Runs Saved via Baseball Info Solutions since 2006, but minus-11 in 2011; still, he should be an improvement over Ramirez, who rates as minus-24 runs over the past two seasons.

And while the Marlins have made a big splash with Reyes and Heath Bell, I don't think they're suddenly instant playoff contenders. The upgrade from Leo Nunez to Bell is marginal at best and may prove to be something less as Bell has to perform outside the canyons of Petco Park. They have to figure out how to replace Javier Vazquez in the rotation. Center field defense with Emilio Bonifacio and/or Chris Coghlan remains an issue.

On the other hand, if Josh Johnson is healthy ... if Ramirez adapts to third base and regains his stroke ... if they can find another starter ... if Logan Morrison improves at the plate ... and if their pursuit of Albert Pujols ends in another big pot of gold being delivered ... well, I think we'll finally find out what kind of baseball city we have in South Florida.

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What does this mean for the Mets? Well, on the most basic level of analysis, this was a team that won 77 games in 2011; going by Baseball-Reference WAR, they’ve lost about 12 wins with the departures of Reyes, Carlos Beltran, Chris Capuano and Francisco Rodriguez (although Beltran and K-Rod didn’t play the whole season with the club). Ruben Tejada likely steps in for Reyes and he’s better than a replacement-level shortstop, although more in the line of a two-win player as opposed to a six-win player. Lucas Duda is slated to become the regular right fielder, and if he hits .292/.370/.482 again, the Mets will have a solid right fielder. Closers are almost always replaceable.

That said, 12 wins won’t be easy to replace, even if Johan Santana comes back and David Wright stays healthy and Ike Davis returns. It’s still early in the offseason, but it’s looking like a long winter for Mets fans.