DALLAS – Shortstop Jose Reyes(notes), one of the most intriguing players on the free-agent market, also became one of the first big names to change teams, agreeing to terms with the suddenly flush Miami Marlins on a six-year, $106 million contract Sunday.
The news came on the eve of baseball's annual winter meetings as executives were checking into the Hilton Anatole Hotel. On the heels of the signing of closer Heath Bell(notes), the Marlins' acquisition of Reyes gives the team that shifted its affiliation from the broader Florida to the more precise Miami a measure of authenticity.
The Marlins courted nearly every significant free agent in the last month, and perked ears had begun to give way to rolled eyes. But with the move of Reyes from the New York Mets to South Florida, it's clear Miami is a legitimately hot destination.
Sources said Sunday night they expect the Marlins to continue their courtship of a superstar first baseman – either Albert Pujols (whom they’ve offered a nine-year contract worth almost $200 million) or Prince Fielder – and a frontline pitcher, likely left-hander Mark Buehrle. At a time in the NL East when the Philadelphia Phillies are showing their age and the New York Mets are irrelevant, and with the opening of a new ballpark, and then feeling the pressure of opening that ballpark on the public dime, the Marlins are, said one source, "Going after it."
They signed Bell last week to a three-year, $27-million contract, and are showing no signs of stopping.
In his walk year, Reyes again could not stay off the disabled list (strained left hamstring), but he batted .337 in 126 games for the first batting title of his career. Reyes won it on the final day when he bunted for a hit in his first at-bat, then removed himself from the game in order to sit on his lead.
Ramirez, 27, has publicly supported the Marlins’ pursuit of Reyes and, therefore, his own transition to third base or, perhaps, center field. Reached Sunday night, Ramirez’s agent, Adam Katz, refused to comment on how the signing would impact his client. Smoothing the notoriously mercurial Ramirez’s transition to another position will be the first piece of business for new manager Ozzie Guillen.
[ Related: Passan's ultimate free-agent tracker ]
Regardless, the Marlins should be better for it. The Mets, not so much.
Reyes signed with the Mets in August 1999 when he was barely 16. He made his major league debut the day before his 20th birthday, became the Mets’ regular shortstop at 21, and was an All-Star at 23.
Neither answer was a bad one.
Reyes was that well equipped. He was that exciting.
By the middle of the decade, the Mets were going to be special. They were going to retake the city on the backs of Reyes, David Wright(notes), Carlos Beltran(notes), Carlos Delgado(notes), Tom Glavine(notes), Pedro Martinez(notes) and Billy Wagner(notes).
Then they went to the playoffs once after the 2000 World Series. It was in 2006, when they lost in the NLCS to a St. Louis Cardinals team they should have beaten and that went on to win the World Series.
Beyond that, nothing. Collapses. Disappointments. Injuries. Press conferences to announce new managers. Others to introduce new general managers. Some to explain how the owner went dangerously close to broke.
[ Related: Reyes signing makes for intriguing NL East race ]
So, at just 28, Reyes leaves the Mets and the city. He is a speed player whose legs have occasionally become untrustworthy, but who can run an offense and defend the middle for periods. They are a franchise whose money is perhaps better saved for another day, for when they’ve regrouped under Fred Wilpon’s ownership and Sandy Alderson’s guidance.
The Mets have finished fourth in the NL East three consecutive seasons, two of them with Reyes as their regular shortstop. (Injuries limited him to 36 games in 2009.)
So, while the club preferred that Reyes return, a $20-million-a-year player – in a climate in which the owner is rallying investors – seemed unreasonable. As it stands, Alderson is working around a payroll that will include almost $60 million for Johan Santana(notes), Jason Bay(notes) and David Wright alone in 2012.
The far greater issue for the Mets is pitching. That is, how to acquire it, how to develop it, and how to get Santana back on the mound.
In the meantime, it appears they’ll do what they can without Reyes, easily their best player in 2011.
The likely plan from here is to move Ruben Tejada(notes) to shortstop. Last season the Mets sent Tejada – a decent fielder, an OK hitter – to the minors in order to learn the position and be ready in case they traded Reyes midsummer.
Few expect Tejada, 21, to be Reyes, or to develop into Reyes.
Of course, moving Tejada opens yet another problem for the Mets, and that is they’ll also require a second baseman, and they probably won’t field anything better than any average player there, either.
As for the Marlins, the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating the financing of their $634 million new stadium, which will open in April. But that clearly hasn't distracted the front office from aggressively pursuing top talent.
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