The Alex Rios Debate
Posted by JD on July 3, 2009
The Mets’ current struggles with an injury-depleted lineup have fueled trade talk among the fans, one of my personal favorite activities. I love wondering whether this pitcher or that batter is available, speculating on the price tag, and concocting mock lineups featuring the targets of the day. It makes me feel more engaged with the team and leads to some interesting discussions with fellow fans.
One such target is Alex Rios, the Toronto Blue Jays’ right fielder. I first saw Rios proposed as a trade target on Metsblog.com. Matthew Cerrone makes a logical argument that he might be available and says that Rios reminds him of a younger Carlos Beltran. I see it, too. He’s played center field, has a nice arm, and runs the bases well. He carries himself similarly, too. Not a squeaky wheel, Rios strikes me as a quiet performer who just goes out there everyday and plays hard. He’s definitely someone worth researching further.
Rios currently has a .736 OPS and an OPS+ of 93 (100 is considered league average). Not stellar, but an upgrade over Ryan Church, Gary Sheffield, Fernando Martinez, and Jeremy Reed, right? Uhmm, not really. Church checks in at .740/97 and Sheffield at .906/139 (How did we get this guy for the Major League minimum? But, I digress…). Rios blows away Martinez (.523/39) and Reed (.659/76), but not Fernando Tatis, who checks in at .734/95. That’s right, Alex Rios is comparable to our very own Fernando Tatis!*
*Rios’ power numbers are better, but he has roughly twice as many plate appearances as Tatis (351 to 175). IMHO, the similarity is stunning. Damning, even.
Let’s dig a little deeper. Rios had a career year in 2007 at the age of 26, hitting 24 homers, collecting 85 RBI and scoring 114 runs on his way to a 122 OPS+. As players tend to reach their primes at the age of 27, it seemed that Rios was setting the stage for a good run. However, he regressed slightly the next year to 17 homers, 79 RBI, and 91 runs (111 OPS+). Admittedly, this is a small sample size, but it indicates that he’s hitting a plateau. His OPS+ has declined from 122 to 111 and his current production indicates it will drop again this season, all during his prime years. Not a good sign.
Acquiring him for a reasonable price would strengthen the lineup a bit and send a positive message to the players (and fans). Cerrone speculates that the Jays would likely give Rios away and I’m inclined to agree: a Dillon Gee-type prospect might get it done. But don’t forget his contract. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Rios is owed $5.9 million this season. By comparison, Church makes $2.8 million, Tatis $1.7 million, and Sheffield $400k. We’re about halfway through the season, so let’s cut those contracts in half. That means Rios is owed $2.95, while Church ($1.9), Tatis ($850k), and Sheffield ($200k) combine to equal that. Three players who each have a higher OPS+ than Rios have a combined salary that equals his? That’s just not a reasonable use of the Mets’ budget.
But wait, there’s more! Rios’ contract climbs to $9.7 million next season. Assuming (and yes, I know what you make when you “assume”) that Rios is a league-average outfielder next season, do the Mets want to lock him in for $9.7 million? Potential free agents include Jason Bay, Carl Crawford (team option), Jermaine Dye, Matt Holliday, and Vlad Guerrero (not to mention everybody’s favorite 2B, Orlando Hudson), and there’s always the possibility that other names will become available via trade. Is acquiring Rios now worth losing the flexibility to acquire these other players?
In my eyes, Rios’ contract has a poison-pill feel to it. It escalates to $12 milli0n in 2011 and 2012 and $12.5 million in 2013 and 2014, with a team option for $13.5 million in 2015 ($1 million buyout). Would it prevent the Mets from adding a premier players in the future? Not necessarily, but is it worth the risk? I’d say no.
To be fair, you can’t ignore the fact that Rios has been playing in the best division of the better league. A trade to the National League might boost his stats or he might be revitalized by the change in scenery and repeat his earlier successes. He’s only 28; it’s not like he’s ready for retirement. But I’d argue that the money and years involved make it a gamble not worth taking. In my opinion, it’s not worth trading prospects and future flexibility for Alex Rios.