Josh Johnson was likely going to be a one-and-done acquisition. He made 31 starts in 2012, and while it was sometimes a struggle, he looked like he had bounced back nicely from the shoulder problem that robbed him of all but 60 innings of a 2011 season in which he was on pace to maybe even outdo the career-best 5.8 WAR he produced the year before. Another step in the direction of his old self, in the form of a big year as one of the big arms anchoring a playoff-bound juggernaut, and he'd probably be looking at a monster nine-figure contract by the time the 2013 offseason rolled around.
Mark Buehrle you could set your watch to. Spectacularly dependable. Spectacularly unspectacular in terms of pure velocity and stuff, but a pitcher's pitcher. An affable pitching genius in the body of an everyman, but one with a contract that would quickly bloat from a tidy $11 million in 2013 to $19 million for his age-36 season in 2015. But nobody seemed to mind the thought of a little overpayment for that far off year that was to be in the sunset of more immediate good times.
R.A. Dickey was likely going to be around even longer. I mean, why wouldn't he? A National League Cy Young winner coming off a spectacular season relying not on arm-shredding heat or Maddux-like guile, but a dazzling knuckleball he'd finally perfected after years of trying, throwing it a little harder than most would—though not so hard anyone being reasonable would have worried about him aging into oblivion, even with his age-40 season on the horizon—and harnessing it to the effect of big strikeout totals and weak contact. His unique development path made him cheap, at least in terms of salary, and the honeymoon was meant to last until 2016, thanks to a $12 million club option for that season.
And then there was Jose Reyes, the always-smiling, effervescent shortstop known for steals and triples, and who began his 2013 season so well, using his dynamic skills to help his native Dominican Republic to the World Baseball Classic title. Of the group, he was the one who had truly cashed in, hitting free agency at age 28, and signing a six-year deal worth $106 million.
When the Blue Jays traded for him, along with Johnson and Buehrle, in the same winter they added Dickey, it was always really about Reyes. Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos called him his favourite player—a star he was rumoured to be interested in multiple times in the past, including his free agent winter, when the Marlins scooped him up instead.
Johnson was a mercenary. Dickey was a one-year wonder and a chance the Blue Jays had to take, given how infrequently Cy Young calibre talent becomes available. Buehrle was always going to be very good, but never quite great.
Reyes was already that. Five seasons with MVP votes and four All-Star appearances in his nine years with the Mets. Reyes was the building block. His contract was massive. He'd be so tough to move once his decline years hit that you felt that surely he was here for the long haul. And you didn't care. He was Jose fucking Reyes.
The idea that he'd be the first of the group to go, save for Johnson's inevitable departure, just seemed so absurd. Maybe Jose Bautista, but not Reyes. Not our brand new spark plug.
And for ten games, as the club struggled to find its footing, with Emilio Bonifacio looking lost on defence, Brett Lawrie on the disabled list, J.P. Arencibia unable to catch the knuckleball, and Dickey sitting on an 8.44 ERA after his first two starts, there was Reyes being brilliant. He was 15-for-38 in those ten games with five steals, five walks and just four strikeouts. A double and a home run. A .395/.465/.526 line that was every bit what we had imagined.
Everyone else would settle in. Everything was going to be OK.
And then there he was in a heap on the dirt surrounding second base at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium, his left foot having bent in very much the wrong direction after a wonky, half-hearted foot-first slide. His ankle sprained and his season derailed.
It's not fair to say that Jays season, or the whole Reyes-Buehrle-Dickey era, died on the dirt at Kaufmann that day. When Reyes returned nearly ten weeks later, the club was a game over .500, though they'd needed an 11-game win streak in early June to get there, and were still 6.5 games back in the American League East.
It's not fair to say, either, that Reyes was never the same after that, though it seemed easier to notice when he appeared timid on defence or the base paths. A look at the trajectory of his hitting numbers is somewhat startling, too. Reyes posted a 127 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) in the first half of 2013, but in the second half it dipped to 107. It stayed at 107 in the first half of 2014, then dipped to 97 after the All-Star break. And in the first half of this year it was just 92.
There is some context missing from those numbers—the fact that he played just 28 games in the first half of 2013, or that this season he struggled through a spell with broken ribs—and this is hardly to suggest that Reyes, who did so much good while he was here, too, should be tied alone to the failures of a flawed club.
It's just… maybe it was all too beautiful a dream to have ever worked in the first place. And it's funny how bloody quickly it all went away—how the anguish so many felt watching that game in Kansas City turned to venom at his performances on the field just two years later—and how final his trade this week to the Colorado Rockies really is.
Reyes is a journeyman now. So much that seemed possible now is just a memory.
So it goes.