With Toronto Blue Jays fans hoping the team can contend in 2012, how to upgrade the team and reload for contention next season has been an important topic of discussion around here. One position that the Jays will look to upgrade (have already upgraded?) is at second base, where just about anything would be better than what Aaron Hill (as much as I love him) provided (.221 / .267 / .309, wRC+ 63) before being traded for Kelly Johnson.
A fairly popular potential solution to our second base woes has been attempting to sign potential free agent Jose Reyes for (what we're assuming to be) about 5 yr / $100 M. As I'm sure everyone knows, Reyes is an excellent player having by far the best season of his career (.336 / .377 / .507, wRC+ 149). He does pretty much everything well on the offensive end -- makes good contact, hits for some power, has a nice batting eye, and is a phenomenal base stealer -- and plays league-average defence at one of the most valuable positions on the diamond, shortstop. There are some grumblings that he'd be hesitant to move from shortstop back to second base (something he actually did do for the New York Mets back in 2004 to accommodate free agent signing Kazuo Matsui).
Of course, the Jays have been employing one of the best shortstops in the American League for the past season and a half, Yunel Escobar, who has hit well (.280 / .355 / .393, wRC+ 108) in 800 plate appearances while playing very good defence (metrics disagree but about 8 runs above average per season is fangraphs Aggregate Defensive Rating) since being traded to Toronto. The Jays recently traded for the aforementioned Johnson, a second baseman in the midst of a down season (.210 / .290 / .408, wRC+ 91), but who has been solid at the plate overall (career: .260 / .342 / .441, wRC+ 107) and provides about league-average defence. However, like Reyes, Johnson is a free agent after this season, which gives the Jays the opportunity to upgrade by signing Reyes and letting Johnson walk. Is this a good idea?
Before even tackling how the move should work analytically, it's important to keep in mind that slotting guys over to new positions generally works provided they are moving "to the left" on the defensive spectrum (see David Eckstein), but these transitions don't necessarily go smoothly (see Orlando Cabrera). Reyes was fine when he played second base years ago and it's likely, though not absolutely assured, that Escobar would be as well. Escobar is sure-handed (above-average career on the error component of UZR) and, while the double play pivot may take some adjustment, I'm confident that Escobar would continue to be solidly above-average at second, if not quite as good as he is at short. Of course, whether being asked to move would bother him is relevant to the discussion and should be addressed.
It's important to keep in mind that Escobar was just recently signed to an exceptionally team-friendly contract (2 yr / 10M (for both seasons), with two team options, each for 5M per season). There's little doubt that part of why he agreed to such team-friendly terms is because, after being run out of Atlanta on what was essentially a rail, he is happy in Toronto, where his "swagger" (or whatever) is generally considered a non-issue (or a positive!). While most of his peripheral stats looked fine in his last half-season with the Braves, he hit a paltry .238 / .334 / .284 (wRC+ 77), and some folks -- including him -- have said that part of his trouble there was that he was unhappy. Naturally, whether his hitting woes were anomalous or tied to frustration with the organization and discomfort with manager Bobby Cox are up to interpretation. At the same time, it's important to remember that part of why Yunel agreed to contract terms decidedly below market value may have been an assurance that he wouldn't be asked to switch positions unless it was absolutely essential to competing or it had become apparent that he'd lost a step or two.
However, even assuming his performance at the plate is not at all tied to short, signing Reyes and moving Escobar over to second may not be the best option. While Reyes was an excellent shortstop when he was younger, the defensive metrics seem to agree that Reyes is about average now (given his injury-riddled past few years). As I mentioned before, I'd predict that Escobar can play second well, though not quite as well as he plays short. A significant part of Escobar's value is his arm, which would be underutilized at second base, so I think a fairly safe bet for Escobar would be something like five runs above average (net loss of 3 runs). Add in the difference in positional adjustment between shortstop (+7.5 runs) and second base (+2.5 runs) for the season and, before looking at the offensive upgrade, we're looking at a net loss of approximately one win by asking Escobar to move.
Since we're assuming Escobar's offensive output will be the same at short as it is at second, the actual upgrade is from Johnson's bat to Reyes's bat. In addition to the obvious difference in salary (which is enormous, considering Reyes will likely command a five-year commitment at around $20 M per season, whereas Johnson could probably be extended for two or three years at about $7.5 M per season), the offensive upgrade needs to compensate for the win that is likely to be lost by moving Escobar. While there's no doubt that Reyes can hit, he's hit well above career norms this year (wRC+ 149 this season, wRC+ 111 career). To be fair, Reyes started playing very young, which drags his career line down a bit. Nonetheless, he's relied heavily on an excellent BABIP (.351) this year; if that falls back to where it was when he last played consistently (around .310), we'd be looking at a wRC+ closer to 125 or 130. Last season, Reyes hit just .282 / .321 / .428 (wRC+ 104) over 133 games.
Which brings us to the real trouble with signing Reyes -- his injury history. After being a model of consistency, playing 633 games between 2005 and 2008 (158 games per season), Reyes has been on and off the field a lot the past three years (mostly off), playing just 267 games since 2009 (89 games per season). He seemed to have shaken the injury bug this year until early August, when he was DLed with hamstring problems (he is currently rehabbing in the minors). Though it may not seem like it, I like Reyes and I think that, over a full season, a healthy Reyes can be worth about six wins. This may be generous, since, although he has had a couple six-win seasons in the past, those were back when he was a much better fielder (over his career, he's been worth about 4.6 fWAR per season of 670 plate appearances). At the same time, I do not think Reyes can play 160 games in 2012, let alone will he be able to play 160 games in four years. I'd say a reasonable bet for playing time would be something like 120 games per season (and even this is somewhat optimistic), which knocks Reyes from a 6.0-win player to a 4.5 win player. If the Jays can provide an adequate replacement for the remaining 40 games (say, someone who'd be worth 2.5 wins over a full season), they'd get about 0.6 wins from the position while Reyes misses time (making the signing worth about 5 wins total on offence). Remembering that moving Escobar will cost the team about a win, we're looking at bringing in Reyes as being worth about 4 wins.
So, assuming their salaries are the same, for the Jays to be willing to retain Johnson, he needs to be a four-win player. Kelly Johnson is not a four-win player, but even in this down season (where he's been hurt by a low BABIP -- .257), he's been worth between 1.5 and 2.0 wins. In 2010, Johnson had an excellent (albeit, fortunate -- BABIP = .339) season, worth somewhere between 5.5 and 6.0 wins. Over his career, Johnson has been worth about 3.5 wins per full season (670 plate appearances). All other things being equal, having Kelly Johnson does not make the team as good as having Jose Reyes. Of course, once again, salary considerations are not equal. In fact, they're nowhere near equal. Reyes will likely make somewhere around three times as much as Johnson and will require a commitment of four or five seasons. For what amounts to the difference between a 4-win player and a 3.5-win player, I don't think the difference in their salaries is worth it. Even if Escobar plays excellent defence at second base (13 runs above-average), we're still looking at the difference between a 5-win player and a 3.5-win player. Even then, I don't think the difference in salary and commitment justifies it.
Thanks to the Futureheads for today's title.