The Mets Have Put All Their Eggs in the Jay Bruce Basket
It’s July 2016. The New York Mets – a team who made it all the way to the 2015 World Series before losing 4-1 to the Kansas City Royals – were on the outside looking in at the National League Wild Card race. Yoenis Cespedes was injured, and the offense was sputtering to put it lightly. Sandy Alderson and his team felt they needed to make a move to bolster the roster. And after weeks of wondering what that move would be, the team finally go their man – Jay Bruce. At the time, Bruce was having one of his better seasons for the Cincinnati Reds. Bruce put a .265/.316/.559 line for the Reds to go with 25 home runs in 402 plate appearances, which was good for a 126 OPS+ (what would’ve been the highest mark in his career). And, despite the aversion to the statistic now in the more sabermetric inclined baseball community, the Mets were very enamored with Bruce’s 80 RBI at that point in the season. Though many pundits pointed to the lack of a true center fielder on the current roster, especially now with Cespedes injuring his calf and stating he could not play center field any longer, the Mets decided they needed to land a big-time slugger to jolt the offense, and felt Bruce was exactly the slugger they were looking for. So they made the trade, sending Cincinnati Dilson Herrera (one time second baseman of the future) and lefty pitching prospect Max Wotell in the trade.
And while the Mets did make a late season push into the Wild Card game, where they ultimately fell to Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants, to say Bruce was a key player in making that happen would be an enormous stretch. After joining the Mets, Jay Bruce had a tumultuous second half to the 2016 season, where hit .219/ .294/ .391 over 187 plate appearances, good for only a 82 OPS+. While he finished the season with 33 home runs, only 8 of them came as a New York Met. Despite his cold bat, Terry Collins and the team dug in their heels and played Bruce still for much of the season, even starting him against southpaw Madison Bumgarner in the Wild Card game. Bruce went 0 for 3 in that contest as well. Adding in the fact that Mets went most of that same span without a true center fielder (Curtis Granderson was re-enlisted to play there for much of that time, despite defensive numbers proving he was not cut out for that role anymore), it is impressive that the Mets even clawed their way into the Wild Card game itself.
But as bad as it was playing Bruce only to see him continue to not produce as a Met, playing him also had one other side effect: it limited the playing time of Michael Conforto. Conforto made his breakthrough in second half of the 2015 season, where he wedged himself into the lineup as not only a regular, but was the number 3 hitter in their amazing postseason run to the World Series. Conforto hit an impressive .270/.335/.506 in 56 games in 2015, good for a 130 OPS+. In 2016, things were different. Conforto picked up where he left in April, hitting a robust .365/.442 /.676 in 86 plate appearances. But May and June were much different stories, as his bat went cold (probably due to a wrist injury) and he was sent down to Triple-A side Las Vegas. After resting the injured wrist down in Las Vegas, Conforto returned to the plate and terrorized minor league pitching to the tune of .422/.483/.727 in 144 plate appearances. This was also his first exposure to Triple-A, as he had skipped the level to join the Major League team in 2015.
Proving that minor league competition was no longer a challenge to him, the Mets called Conforto back up. However, by that time the club had already acquired Bruce and now Conforto’s playing time was not guaranteed. Playing a backup outfielder role the rest of the season Conforto finished the 2016 campaign with a final line of .220/.310/.414, good for a 92 OPS+. Definitely below what was expected of the young hitter, but still a better performance than what the Mets got from Jay Bruce last season.
With all that being said, it became very clear that the Mets were not going to simply part ways with Jay Bruce. Despite having a $1M buyout option, the team chose to pick up his option for $13M for this upcoming season. In fact, many were wondering if Jay Bruce was seen by the Mets as insurance since re-signing Yoenis Cespedes seemed difficult at the time. Fortunately, the team and Cespedes were able to work out a new deal. However, Cespedes will more than likely no longer be playing CF any longer in Queens. So now that leaves the team with a presumably starting outfield of Cespedes in left, Granderson in center, and perhaps Bruce in right. Bruce, and Granderson for that matter, will have to hit very well to justify starting such a porous outfield. Another option, though, could be to play Jay Bruce at first base.
Lucas Duda was set to come back and play first this upcoming season, but he has currently gone down in Spring Training with an injury, opening up playing time at first for players like Bruce. Should the team decide to roll with Bruce at first base, that would be an almost near like-for-like replacement for Duda, who’s power was missed last season as the club used James Loney to replace him in the lineup…which was one of the factors that led to the Jay Bruce trade. Playing him at first would also open up a spot in right field for Michael Conforto, who is ripping the cover off the ball so far this spring. Now granted, it is spring training so all performances have to be taken with a huge grain of salt. But, it is good to see Conforto rise to the challenge and fight to regain his spot in the starting lineup for the Mets. So far this spring he’s hit a robust .360/.385/.640 in 25 at bats. If he can regain his 2015/early 2016 form he can be the x-factor that makes the Mets the division leader once again.
But in terms of Bruce, whether he plays first base, right field, or is even eventually benched or traded, this season will have to be examined through the lens of the Mets’ decision to both acquire him last year and then pick up his $13M option for this season. Despite picking up the option so quickly, it’s been later reported that the Mets would need to move some payroll off the books in order to add bullpen and other reinforcements for the upcoming season. Alderson may have felt that moving Bruce, if need be, would not be a difficult task. The reality, however, proved quite different, especially with the front office trying to get something similar to the return the sent Cincinnati’s way for his services. And with Jeurys Familia set to serve a 30 game suspension for his Domestic Violence charges this winter, not being able to add bullpen depth may prove to be costly.
To his credit, Bruce is enjoying a torrid spring where he’s been hitting .417/.533/.750 through 12 at bats so far. Small sample size for sure, and it’s only spring training games, but the Mets will need his bat to come alive to justify the decisions they’ve made with regards to Jay Bruce this winter. It’s been noted that the Alderson front office had long coveted Jay Bruce. Now it’s time to see if he’s the player they believed him to be all this time.