Commentary

If Reyes bolts, Mets set to turn to Tejada

Ex-infield coach Chip Hale says skipper Terry Collins is ready to give role to Ruben

Updated: October 18, 2011, 12:25 PM ET
By Adam Rubin | ESPNNewYork.com

After the New York Mets completed their 77-85 season, infielder Ruben Tejada reiterated his plan to travel in November from his native Panama to Long Island in order to work out with Jose Reyes for a couple of weeks at a Garden City training facility.

Assuming that materializes, the question is this: Will Reyes be training with next season's double-play partner? Or will Reyes be training with his successor as Mets shortstop?

Reyes very well might be headed elsewhere as a free agent this offseason.

If so, the organization is prepared to make Tejada his replacement. And Chip Hale, who has left the Mets to serve as Bob Melvin's bench coach with the Oakland Athletics, believes Tejada is ready to be an everyday major league shortstop.

"Whether he plays second every day next year or short, he's going to be a big contributor to that team," said Hale, who coached Mets infielders the past two seasons. "And they need it."

Terry Collins recognized early in his managerial tenure that the handoff from Reyes to Tejada at shortstop might occur in 2012.

"Last year, when we sent Ruben back to Triple-A, the idea Terry had was that if there's any way that Jose is not going to be the shortstop in 2012, we need to really get Ruben ready," Hale said. "Obviously things changed, and the way things worked out, he kind of became our everyday second baseman. But when we sent him down there and gave him a little plan for his work, he really went at it and worked at it hard.

"His physical presence has improved. He's gotten bigger. He's gotten stronger. And I think he will continue to. And that's enabled him to make all the plays he needs to. He's shown he can make the play deep in the hole. The one play he struggled with -- that slow-hit ball in the hole where he has to get around it and backhand it -- he had been going at it at a funny angle. He showed a couple of times toward the end he could make that play.

"I think he definitely can be an everyday shortstop. The thing we always worried about was, a guy gets up there and hits .200, you can't have that in the major leagues anymore. You can't have the guy who fields everything but only hits .200, .210. I think he can hit at .250 in a bad year and maybe hit .270, .280. We know he can occupy the eight hole, which is a tough place to hit. And he was really doing the job in the two hole behind Jose."

[+] EnlargeTBD
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesNo one's saying it's an upgrade, but if Jose Reyes drops the Mets, Ruben Tejada has what it takes to take over at shortstop.

According to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information, albeit with a small sample size, Tejada demonstrated a solid ability to field balls hit up the middle as a shortstop. In 574 2/3 innings over two years, Tejada is a plus-10 at getting to those balls. Translation: He turned 10 more balls up the middle into outs than an average major league shortstop. Reyes, by comparison, was a plus-five on those balls last season.

Simon adds that both Tejada and Reyes have the same issue -- a lot of balls get past them in the shortstop/third-base hole.

"One thing that would be a concern would be effectiveness at turning the double play," Simon said. "He had 47 double-play opportunities at shortstop last year -- meaning he was either fielder or the pivot man on a fielded ground ball with a runner on first and less than two outs. He only turned 17, which is well below average."

Said one National League scout: "Tejada is ready to play every day. Save the money and go get some pitching. You're not winning anything in 2012 anyway. Find out if the kid can do it. He really has improved with the bat and gotten physically stronger. He's going to need a backup, though, in case he gets hurt or needs a day off."

Hale said Tejada, who turns 22 on Oct. 27, is actually more advanced in the field than Reyes in terms of the mental side of the game, even though Reyes is now a veteran of nine major league seasons. Whereas Reyes relies on his superior athletic ability, Tejada has displayed a superior mental aptitude, such as shading batters based on what pitch is about to be thrown and its location.

The baby-faced Tejada long has shown maturity beyond his years. He even demonstrated poise as the starting shortstop for Team Panama in the World Baseball Classic in 2006 at age 16.

"Baseball intelligence, he's way above his age," Hale said. "He's not the usual 21.

"You know what? There are not many shortstops in this game that can physically do what Jose does. In fact, Jose is going to have to start wherever this contract is -- with the Mets or wherever it is -- becoming better with all those things [reading bat swings, which pitch is coming, etc.]. Ruben does that already. He has a better idea. He knows he can't rely on pure physicality. He has to know what's going on, know the pitcher.

"You know, I could ask him, 'Why did we cover [second base with the shortstop] here?' And he would tell me exactly why. 'Hey, the pitcher is supposed to throw a sinker in.' ... His reasoning was always right.

"Foot speed, I don't think he runs great. I think he can be a better base stealer. He will be. He's got the instincts. With any base stealer, with any baserunner, he just needs to be a little more carefree and not be afraid to get thrown out. What happens is a lot of guys can run, or they're decent baserunners, but they're afraid to get thrown out. Or they've always gotten in trouble when they've gotten thrown out in the past, and they lose that freedom of trying to do it. I think he'll be able to as he improves his leads and learns the pitchers.

"But I do not see his lack of foot speed [in the field] necessarily. He's got the quickness, and his ability to get a jump on the ball is really good. He plays hitters really well."

That is not to suggest Tejada is Reyes' equal by any stretch. Hale, asked where Tejada might fit defensively in a ranking of major league shortstops, labeled Tejada as middle of the pack.

Meanwhile, Reyes won the NL batting crown this past season and, when his gimpy hamstrings allow, will put up gaudy steal numbers Tejada will never duplicate. Tejada hit .284 with no homers, 36 RBIs and five steals in 96 games.

"If you look at it from a WAR [wins above replacement] perspective, Reyes was a 6.2 last year via Fangraphs. Tejada was a 1.8," Simon said. "The question would be: What is Tejada at his best ... maybe a 3-WAR player? So there is a drop-off."

Said Hale: "I think defensively he'd be right at the average. He could get better. The one thing Ruben is never going to give you, I don't think, is that real big voice -- that [Derek] Jeter, that leader kind of guy. But he'll go in there to a pitcher every now and then. I think as he gets older, he'll become more of a quiet leader."

Adam Rubin has covered the Mets since 2003. He's a graduate of Mepham High School on Long Island and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined ESPNNewYork after spending 10 years at the New York Daily News.
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