NEW YORK -- Sandy Alderson smirked last week when asked if baseball's days of excessive long-term free-agent contacts might be finished.
"I'd say they continue to be very rare," the Mets' general manager said, "but I'd hesitate to say they're obsolete."
Though Alderson was not talking specifically about the market for shortstop Jose Reyes, he might as well have been. The Mets, it is no secret, want Reyes back in New York next season. Reyes wants to return. And yet the possibility that some team will blow away the Mets' best offer makes this an uncertain -- even doubtful, at this point -- renewal of vows.
The free-agent period is barely a week old, and already the Marlins are reportedly courting Reyes in Miami. Others, including the Brewers, will surely not be far behind. Soon, then, Alderson and the Mets should establish a more defined expectation of Reyes' worth on the open market.
But for teams courting the shortstop, these are hardly easy parameters to set. At 28 years old, Reyes remains as electric and talented as he is injury-prone and unpredictable, spawning daydreams of his capabilities alongside fears of his limitations. There is little precedent for a player of his caliber, at his position, with his unique skill set and risks to hit the open market. And so his dollar value remains in question.
"Both players and agents are interested in knowing what those parameters are before they make their decision," Alderson said. "So I think this is going to be a slow process. I'd be surprised if it weren't."
The most accurate comparison may be the one Mets owner Fred Wilpon drew in the New Yorker earlier this summer, opining that Reyes will not receive "Carl Crawford money" on the open market. Crawford, a corner outfielder, signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox last winter at age 29, in a deal that has since come under scrutiny due to his poor performance. At the time, Crawford had produced a .296 career average, .337 on-base percentage and .444 slugging percentage over nine seasons for Tampa Bay, hitting 104 home runs and 105 triples and stealing 409 bases.
Reyes, by comparison, enters free agency holding a .292 average, .341 on-base percentage and .441 slugging percentage over nine seasons in New York, amassing 81 home runs, 99 triples and 370 stolen bases.
Reyes also holds the advantage of playing at least league-average -- and at times spectacular -- defense at a premium position, and he is one year younger than Crawford was when he signed. But his medical history cannot match that of Crawford, who averaged 146 games per season in the eight years prior to his free agency. Reyes has mustered just 123 games per season over the last eight years, and 98 per season since 2009, battling chronic hamstring woes and a host of other injuries.
Jose Reyes money
Though they play different positions, Jose Reyes and Carl Crawford are often compared, especially since Reyes is following Crawford into free agency. Here's how the two leadoff hitters stack up offensively since 2005, Reyes' first full season in the Majors.
For those reasons, Crawford may not be an ideal case study to analyze Reyes' value. But who is? All-Star shortstops are such rare, valuable commodities in today's game that precious few ever hit the open market; most teams lock theirs up long before they can bolt, buying out arbitration and free-agent years without hesitation. Recent examples include the Phillies inking Jimmy Rollins for five years and $40 million in 2005, the Marlins signing Hanley Ramirez for six years and $70 million in 2007, and the Rockies locking up Troy Tulowitzki for seven years and $134 million last fall.
But those players will always be dissimilar from Reyes in that they signed long-term deals while already under team control.
Apt comparisons simply do not exist. The only big-ticket free-agent shortstop to sign last winter was 36-year-old Derek Jeter, who earned an above-market contract from the Yankees worth three years and $51 million. A year earlier, zero notable shortstops signed free-agent deals.
Searching back further reveals more of the same: A relatively modest three-year deal for Rafael Furcal at age 31, a similar four-year deal for Julio Lugo at the same age, and so on and so forth throughout recent history. Every notable free-agent shortstop to hit the market over the last decade has either been on the wrong side of his prime, underwhelming in his credentials, or both.
In sum, 11 years have passed since an elite shortstop has hit free agency in his prime, back when the Rangers gave Alex Rodriguez a 10-year deal worth a record $252 million, and the Yankees awarded Jeter with 10 years and $189 million. But both of those players were smack in the middle of Hall of Fame career arcs, at a time when front offices were not generally as wary of such long-term commitments.
All of which is to say that whoever signs Reyes this winter will be setting a new precedent -- and that it may take some time to establish.
"We have enough of a sense to know that things are going to go slowly," Alderson said, "which I think is typical of most if not all free agents."
It is possible that Reyes may even wait on Rollins, a free agent for the first time at age 33. Though Rollins is 4 1/2 years older than Reyes and on the downslope of his career, he should still attract enough interest to earn a multiyear contract. Once Rollins signs, Reyes could soon follow.
That exact scenario played out last year at the Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Almost immediately after Jayson Werth set the market for outfielders by signing a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals, Crawford inked a more lucrative seven-year deal with Boston.
Because Reyes' agents have declined to comment publicly on their negotiations, such strategies remain guesswork for now. The Mets, for their part, have their own established limits in mind -- "a sense of where we'd be comfortable, or slightly less comfortable, or totally uncomfortable," as Alderson put it. Common sense dictates that Reyes should sign for around five years and something approaching -- if not exceeding -- $100 million.
But there is always the possibility of one or more teams setting unexpected parameters, given the conspicuous lack of precedent already in place. All that's clear now is that whatever the market once was, Reyes is about to redefine it one way or the other.
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.