New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes is the hottest item on the trade market this season, and the prevailing sentiment seems to be that he will be dealt to one or another contender before the trade deadline.
Wherever he may go, though, or even if he remains with the Mets all season, Reyes figures to test the free-agent market this winter and should find a rich reward for that freedom. He currently leads the National League in batting average, has remained healthy and may be emerging as an elite offensive player as well as an above-average defender at the most important position on the diamond.
The Chicago Cubs are, at first glance, a counterintuitive candidate for Reyes' services. Their current cornerstone, and arguably their sole consolation in a lost season, is young and athletic shortstop Starlin Castro. Their glaring prospective hole for 2012 is at first base, where each of the winter's other big free agents (Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols) make more sense for the Cubs on the surface.
Yet, something is not quite right. Both titanic sluggers present risk: Fielder has a bad body and is a poor fielder, while Pujols (regardless of his dubious age) has had a middling season to this point and will now miss substantial time with a wrist fracture.
Moreover, each man has earning potential some $50 million higher than that of Reyes. The Cubs could go the easy route and sign one of the two lumbering veterans, but doing so would mean sinking a colossal amount of money in uncertain future commodities.
Whom should the Cubs prioritize this winter?
Many believe he will one day meet two of those criteria, but for now, we can say only this: Castro is a shortstop who has proved able to hit for average and whose athletic tools promise above-average defense in the long term. He lacks plate discipline and power right now, and continues to make too many mistakes afield to reach his potential.
Signing Reyes would allow the Cubs to move Castro to either second base or center field. At second, he would retain solid positional value but might feel much less pressure to rush plays. At shortstop, he has hurried throws on plays in the hole and fumbled slow grounders against quick runners, leading to excessive errors. Slowing the game down may be easier for him at the keystone sack.
In center field, the positional value might be much less, but the raw defensive value would be much higher. Castro has enough speed to cover Wrigley Field's very small center field pasture and such terrific instincts on balls in the air that he might well become an elite ball hawk.
In either case, Reyes and Castro on the same diamond would be as dazzling for Cubs fans as it would be daunting for opponents. Both provide great defense in that scenario. Both are explosive players. For the first time since perhaps 2001, the Cubs would be playing a timeless, aesthetically pleasing brand of baseball. With Brett Jackson ready to take over center or right field, they would have no fewer than three top-shelf talents under 30 years old with the ability to energize the game.
The Fielder and Pujols routes are safer, and possibly smarter. Reyes' injury history is not to be ignored, although Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth nimbly proved the relative insignificance of those issues after strong walk-year performances for free agents.
The good bet is that the Cubs go the traditional, conservative route and sign one of the available sluggers this winter. But then, tradition and conservatism have not served the franchise well over the past 100-plus years.