Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Reyes puts pressure on his opponents
By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com

The 2-0 fastball was delivered high and away, just where Jose Reyes was expecting it, meaning the pitch was about to meet with the same fate as a pigeon being sucked into the turbines of a jet engine. Quick and painless, Reyes overwhelmed left-hander Mark Redman, giving the Braves what must've been the one millionth example of why the National League fears him.

It's not just that the Mets shortstop blasted Redman's offering into the gap in right-center. It's the way he stretches a mortal's double into an effortless triple -- he hit three in three games against the Braves -- and how much more efficient he's become at harassing opposing teams.

Reyes was on base seven times against Atlanta while raising his average to .320. Little by little, the shortstop is becoming the centerpiece of the Mets' offense, eclipsing Carlos Delgado, David Wright and even Carlos Beltran. Until now, Beltran has been universally regarded as the Mets' best five-tool player, but that was before Reyes started learning the subtle difference between a strike and a hittable strike and the importance of working the count to his favor.

Jose Reyes
Is Reyes capable of stealing 100 bases in a season? Ricky Henderson thinks so.
Now he's an opposing manager's nightmare: strong enough to drive mistakes not just into the power alleys, but over the fences, too, having blasted 19 homers last year. But Reyes is just as notorious for turning singles into de facto extra-base hits, thanks to his growing base-stealing ability. Rickey Henderson, a spring-training instructor with the Mets, mentored Reyes this year and said the Mets' shortstop is capable of doubling last year's league-leading 64 swipes, which would put him on the doorstep of the all-time single-season mark (130) set by Henderson himself in 1982.

All that Reyes needs, according to Henderson, is the ability to draw more walks. Bases on balls, of course, are borne out of patience and maturity, neither of which was considered among Reyes' assets in his first three seasons with the Mets. But he's gaining the kind of plate discipline that's making opponents notice, having nearly doubled his walks from 27 in 2005 to 53 last year, while he raised his average from .273 to .300.

"Used to be that Reyes would swing at everything," Braves starter John Smoltz said. "It was a lot easier to pitch to him two years ago because he would get himself out. But now he's smarter, he waits for his pitch, and if you make a mistake he'll hurt you up the gaps."

What, exactly, is his ceiling? The trend line says Reyes might outperform everyone in New York, even beyond his Mets teammates. That's no small endorsement, with competition like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. But Mets starter Tom Glavine said, "There's no one who shines at both sides of the game, offense and defense, like Jose. Some might be as good as him at one part, but not both."

Indeed, manager Willie Randolph believes Reyes is capable of winning both an MVP Award and a Gold Glove, although the most attainable goal -- symbolic of Reyes' dominance -- is 100 stolen bases. No one since Vince Coleman (109) in 1987 has reached the century mark in swipes, although Reyes seems like a can't-miss. His on-base percentage has improved steadily, from a paltry .271 in 2004 to .354 last year to its current .400 through Monday.

The more often Reyes reaches first base, the more unsettled opponents become. Braves catcher Brian McCann said, "When I see Reyes out of the corner of my eye, I can't say it's a good feeling. You know he's going to go, and you know there isn't much you can do to stop him."

To his credit, Reyes hasn't let his mushrooming talent spoil his friendly personality. He's remarkably open with strangers, trusting enough to almost be considered naive. Above all, Reyes remains humble. There's a running debate in New York over which team has the better shortstop -- Reyes' range and speed are clearly superior to Jeter's, and he has a stronger throwing arm, as well -- but Reyes politely says, "I have a long way to go" before indulging that dialogue.

"Derek Jeter is a great player, but for me, the important thing is to win a championship, that's what matters first," Reyes said the other day. "I have a lot of things to work [on]."

It can't be strength. Reyes bulked up to 195 pounds over the winter and seems destined to top last year's mark of 19 home runs. Beltran said Reyes will "easily" become a 30-homer threat within the next year or two, which, if true, would make him the 49th player in history to join the 30-30 club.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only six of the 49 have been leadoff hitters. None, however, has been as young as Reyes, who is only 23.

"Jose is feared like I was feared on the bases, but not as feared at the plate yet," Henderson told the New York Times. "When he gets to that point, he'll put the fear of God into everyone."

Reyes might already be close. Nevertheless, he remains as enthusiastic and unaffected as a rookie. That's an important currency in a veteran clubhouse; Reyes is as well-liked as any of the more established Mets. Even Randolph, who is notoriously tough on young players, lets his guard down for the kid.

"There are a lot of players who can hit and field and throw, but Jose is one of the few I would pay to watch," the manager said. "He has so much energy and appreciation for the game."

That's one area of Reyes' game the Mets hope never changes. The rest -- speed, power, and defense -- are all on the move upward. Scary thought indeed.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.