With Jose Reyes now a Miami Marlin, many questions have been raised. Who will play shortstop? How will the fans react? How will the Mets replace him? Reyes was a lot of things to the Mets, and perhaps none more important than a leadoff hitter. Last season, Reyes hit leadoff 124 times, and he has solidified his place atop the Mets batting order since his arrival on the scene (except for the ill-advised experiment in the third slot in 2010). That begs the question, who will bat leadoff?
Angel Pagan: Pagan, if he is brought back, hit leadoff 31 times last season, the second most on the team after Reyes. While Pagan might seem like a natural leadoff hitter-he is quick, steals bases and doesn’t hit for a lot of power-his OBP is a little lower than most would want in the batting order’s top slot. Last season, Pagan’s OBP was just .322, and his career mark is .331. His career walk rate of 7.5% would also need to go up if Pagan hit leadoff on a regular basis. As it so happens, Pagan has actually fared well in the leadoff spot during his career, sporting a .301/.341/.467 slash line with 13 homers in 708 plate appearances. Of course, Reyes’ career walk rate is only 6.9%, so maybe Pagan is onto something (but seriously, he’d have to walk a little more). Angel also stole 32 bases in 39 tries last year.
Ruben Tejada: Reyes’ heir apparent was the only other players besides Jose and Pagan to hit first in 2011. Last year, Tejada sported a .360 OBP and 9.3% walk rate, both superior to Pagan. Tejada isn’t a speedster (he swiped five bags in six tries last year), but nobody said quickness was was essential to hitting leadoff. If and when Tejada develops more power, as he began to show in the half of last season, and he hits some doubles to get himself into scoring position, he could be effective at the top of the order.
Jason Bay: The Mets have tried batting Bay at just about every spot in the batting order, except leadoff. In fact, Bay has never hit first in his entire career; so why start now? Bay is supposed to be a power hitter, but as Mets fans know all to well, he hasn’t been that. And while his OBP since coming to New York is just .337, his career mark is .369 and he still sported a walk rate last season of 11.0% (12.3% for his career). In an ideal world, Bay would hit somewhere in the middle of the order and see increased power due to the change in Citi Field dimensions. But if he continues to struggle in the power department, a move to the leadoff spot isn’t out of the question. Like Tejada, Bay doesn’t steal a lot of a bases, but he’s managed 87 steals in 102 tries over the course of his career.
Josh Thole: A catcher batting leadoff? Jason Kendall did it, and managed a .290/.369/.353 batting line from the top spot during his career. Like Tejada, Thole doesn’t hit for a lot of power, but during his short career, the backstop has gotten on base at a respectable .350 clip and walked at a 9.8% rate. Again, you’re sacrificing speed by placing Thole first in the lineup, but it might be worth it if he gets on base at a high percentage.
None of these options are particularly appealing, but then again, none of them really compare to Reyes. Out of these options, Pagan and Tejada are probably the most likely candidates. Despite his low OBP, Pagan would possess the most speed in the lineup, and it’s easy to see Terry Collins follow the old speed at the top of the batting order adage. Furthermore, Pagan tends to be aggressive and run early in the count, so a single could quickly turn into a double. Tejada would likely be the second option, given the ability he’s shown to get on base and produce lengthy at-bats, although whether these skills can be sustained in the long run at the Major League level has yet to be seen. The Mets hope to get more power out of Bay with Citi Field’s new dimensions, so he will likely bat in the middle of the order, and Thole might still be in a platoon, meaning Collins would need a new leadoff hitter every few days.
It might seem impossible, but the Mets can go on without Reyes batting first. Even though he possesses the lightning speed typical of leadoff hitters and is described as a “sparkplug” or an “offensive catalyst,” all one really needs in order to bat first is a high OBP. Yes, Reyes owned a .384 OBP last season, but he also had a BABIP of .353, which is unsustainable over the long haul, and he didn’t walk a lot. Therefore, if the Mets can find a hitter who can draw walks in addition to collecting hits, they might find a suitable replacement in the leadoff spot.