I read and enjoyed Joel Sherman's article on the best way to use Luis Castillo. Sherman continues to be the best, most innovative and thought-provoking baseball writer in New York.
However, I have to respectfully disagree with him. Not with how Castillo should be used, because he should be a table-setter, and not because Sherman believes with Castillo hitting in front of him, Jose Reyes could be a huge RBI man. Because I also believe that Reyes, with his 190+ hits over the last four seasons—including a career high 204 last season—can be a huge run producer. While his on-base percentage has improved over the last couple of years, it is still a sub-par .336 for his career, which isn't great for a leadoff hitter.
Reyes has jumped his power production to include 16, 12 and 19 homers over the last three seasons and 30, 36 and 37 doubles over the same time. Except for Curtis Granderson, we know Reyes can bang out triples better than anyone in baseball, too, as he has slugged and sped his way to 65 over the last four seasons—with 19 coming in 2008. His slugging percentage last year of .475 was best of his career and he continues to be a free swinger, often swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.
Reyes is becoming less a leadoff hitter and more of a middle-of-the-order lineup threat. After back-to-back disappointing years, the 2009 season is so important for the Mets franchise. That is why Jose Reyes needs to be the No. 3 hitter for the Mets this season.
There are many other factors which lead Reyes to be the No. 3 hitter:
1) Carlos Delgado will not be a New York Met beyond 2009
Who is going to hit in the middle of the Mets' lineup the next couple of seasons? The Mets might go after Matt Holliday for next season to play left field and then move Daniel Murphy to first base. They better make sure they can outbid the Red Sox, who have been drooling over acquiring Holliday for two seasons. If the economy improves by next off-season, there could be other teams bidding for Holliday, too, like the Dodgers, Angels and the usual suspects.
A more likely (and cost-effective) scenario is that Fernando Martinez stays healthy, becomes the force he is supposed to become, and then takes over left field full time next year—with Murphy once again taking over at first base. But, F-Mart is not a middle of the order hitter—yet.
That leaves Reyes for the No. 3 spot next year, protected by the patient David Wright at cleanup. So, why not get Reyes acclimated to the middle of the lineup a year earlier?
2) Luis Castillo appears to be the Castillo of old
Castillo has lost weight (reports have him at dropping 17 pounds), has improved his leg strength and while in the leadoff spot this spring, has taken pitches, put the ball in play and gotten on base. He shows no effects from last season's leg injuries, and his promise to Omar Minaya to work hard in the off-season and come into camp in great shape can't go unnoticed.
His career OBP of .367 is much superior to Reyes' .336. Even though Castillo had a terrible season in 2008, his OBP of .355 compares favorably to Reyes' .358 of a year ago.
The new Castillo will be more productive for the Mets in the leadoff spot, with Beltran hitting in the No. 2 hole, followed by Reyes and Wright.
3) Reyes leads the team in hits every season
Except for 2007, when Reyes' 191 hits were five behind Wright's 196, but you get the picture. Reyes gets a lot of hits, but these hits are wasted at the top of the order. Hits are needed to drive in runs and Reyes will be more productive in the No. 3 hole, especially with Castillo and Beltran on base in front of him. After early-season injuries to Castillo and Ryan Church, Reyes was pitched around so much last season and still had 204 hits, but should be even more productive this year hitting in front of Wright the entire season.
With Castillo and Beltran hitting in front of him, Reyes will have many more opportunities to drive in runs, and those 200 or so hits will be very productive.
4) Reyes will still get his stolen bases, appeasing his needs
Supposedly, Reyes loves the stolen base stat, and a lot of steals really boosts his desire to play hard. Jose, don't tell that to the saber heads out there in Met-land.
Anyways, with two speedy runners in Castillo and Beltran in front of him, Reyes will still get plenty of opportunities to run when batting third. Many times after Reyes gets a hit, Beltran will get to third. Also, with Jerry Manuel's aggressive nature, Reyes will be on the back end of double steals with Castillo or Beltran. It will be a good move to double steal with the right handed Wright up. It won't happen all the time, but in certain situations.
Many people are saying you can't run Reyes in the No. 3 spot, as teams will take the bat out of Wright's hand by pitching around him. But, if they walk Wright, I would take two (or more) men on with Delgado coming up all day long. With a lefty on the hill, Reyes stays put (also because Wright pounds lefties), but when a righty is on the mound in that situation, Reyes has the green light.
5) Daniel Murphy is better suited to the No. 7 spot in the order.
If Reyes hits leadoff, the likely No. 2 hitter is Murphy, who takes pitches, works the count, etc. While Murphy is a good OBP guy, so is Beltran, but Murphy projects to hit for a higher average. At the No. 7 spot in the order OBP is nice, but a higher average and the ability get hits is more important from this spot. With higher OBPs becoming so important for the guys in the middle of the lineup, as opposed to just the top, there needs to be a guy who can generate hits to drive home Wright (.390 OBP in 2008), Delgado (.353), Church (.346) and/or Tatis (.369).
Murphy is the best person for this position, hitting in the No. 7 hole behind the high OBP guys. If Murphy hits the .313 like he did last season (albeit in only 150 plate appearances), or even around .300, he will drive in better than 100 runs in the No. 7 hole this season.
Besides the thoughts of many blown saves last season, another problem was the lack of clutch hits. Having Murphy in the bottom of the order will help that situation. The Mets' No. 7 hitters last season combined for a .247/.312/.357, driving in only 71 runs. Those types of numbers left a lot of men on base.
Don't underestimate the value of having a high average hitter in that spot in the order.
I would also platoon Church and Fernando Tatis in the No. 6 spot, and wouldn't really worry about the three lefties in a row (Delgado, Church and Murphy), because they will only be together against righty starters. If a lefty comes in later, Manuel has Tatis off the bench for Church. Also, Murphy hits lefties well, while Delgado's a .263 career hitter against lefties, not exactly terrible.
My lineup would then be:
Castillo, Beltran, Reyes, Wright, Delgado, Church/Tatis, Murphy, Schneider, Pitcher.
The idea of using another high OBP guy like Castillo at the No. 9 hole is plausible, but that changes the dynamic of the No. 7 spot, which would likely be filled by Schneider. His lack of offensive production would leave too many men on base, costing the Mets too many missed runs. Tony LaRussa started this "trend" last season by using position players in the Cardinals' No. 9 spot so as to give Albert Pujols more RBI opportunities.
This is a different story for the Mets, as they are much deeper with their lineup than the Cardinals. LaRussa was forced to stack the deck for the best hitter in baseball and was going for broke every time Pujols was coming up in the lineup. With the Mets being better offensively than St. Louis, Manuel need not have to be so creative. They do not need to get another regular hitter in front of Reyes, Wright, and Delgado.
With a healthy Castillo and Beltran getting on base at 35 to 37 percent clips in front of him, Reyes will drive in about 130 runs when getting his usual 190-plus hits. Huge RBI numbers (and the prestige it gets) will overcome any mental problems Reyes might have regarding his reduced stolen base total.
On Base Percentage is important for scoring runs, but for the most part, those runs don't get home unless the batters behind them get hits. Having Reyes and Wright back-to-back at Nos. 3 and 4 in the lineup will drive in those runs that were sorely needed on many occasions last season. True, the Mets scored 799 runs last year, second in the National League, but won 29 games via blowout (five-plus runs) and lost 19 games by a single run. A few more runs in the right spots help the Mets into the playoffs.
It doesn't matter how many runs you score, but when you actually score them. With hitting, timing is everything—in more ways than one.
It is time for Jose Reyes to hit third.