Jay Bruce has been one of the most oft-mentioned trade candidates of the offseason, but the Mets have now informed him that they plan to open the season with him in right field, reports Ken Davidoff of the New York Post.
Set to turn 30 in April, Bruce hit .250/.309/.506 with 33 homers on the season as a whole last year but wilted with the Mets, slumping to a .219/.294/.391 batting line. That marked his second straight year with a late-season collapse at the plate (.178/.219/.357 from Aug. 1 through season’s end in 2015), which can’t have made trading him any easier for GM Sandy Alderson this winter. Also complicating matters is the fact that his once-premium defensive ratings in right field have tumbled since undergoing knee surgery in April 2014.
Bruce was always a fairly redundant asset with the Mets, as Curtis Granderson and Michael Conforto are both, like Bruce, left-handed-hitting corner outfielders. Nonetheless, the uncertainty surrounding Yoenis Cespedes’ future in Queens prompted the Mets to exercise Bruce’s $13MM option as a safety net. When Cespedes re-signed on a four-year deal on Nov. 30, Bruce looked to be the odd man out.
Any market for Bruce, though, was slowed by a free-agent market that was rife with defensively limited sluggers that could be had at lower rates. Brandon Moss, for example, remains available to this day, while Michael Saunders signed a one-year, $9MM deal with the Phillies that is more affordable than Bruce’s deal. (The Phillies were said to have some interest in a Bruce trade prior to that signing.) The Mets reportedly never warmed to the idea of absorbing some of Bruce’s salary to facilitate a trade, and they also were reported to be seeking two prospects in exchange for Bruce at last check.
Retaining Bruce creates a familiar logjam in a New York outfield that figures to come with some defensive concerns. While Cespedes and Juan Lagares will provide quality glovework when the Mets face a left-handed starter, the Mets will presumably deploy Cespedes, Granderson and Bruce (from left to right) against right-handed starters.
Keeping Bruce in the fold also brings into question Conforto’s immediate role with the team. The Mets will look at both Bruce and Conforto at first base in Spring Training, according to Davidoff, but they also have Lucas Duda returning from a back injury. Duda is slated to earn $7.25MM and figures to be the regular first baseman if healthy, which could push Conforto to the bench or back to Triple-A Las Vegas. Conforto does have a minor league option remaining and has only spent 33 games in Triple-A in his career, so perhaps some additional time there would serve him well. He did, after all, struggle at the plate in his sophomore campaign. Then again, Conforto advocates can point to the fact that he’s a career .330/.402/.522 hitter in the minors that slashed .422/.483/.727 in 144 Triple-A plate appearances last season, creating an argument that he should be getting another chance in the Majors.
Of course, having depth is hardly a bad thing for the Mets, who now look like they’ll have a quality reserve option (Conforto) in the event that one of their outfielders gets hurt. Alternatively, an injury to an outfielder on another club could lead to some late interest for Bruce. Davidoff notes that the Mets “would of course slam the brakes … if a late suitor presented an interesting trade package, but that appears a long shot.” Most clubs looking to add a notable corner outfielder have already filled that void, although the Blue Jays and Giants could both plausibly look at Bruce as a left field option. (That’s just speculation, although the Jays have been linked to Bruce frequently over the past calendar year.)
By hanging onto Bruce and his $13MM salary, the Mets look poised to enter the season with a projected $146MM payroll. They’ve reportedly been waiting to move Bruce before pursuing additional help for their bullpen, but they’ll now be faced with the decision of pushing their payroll to record levels or sticking with internal options. Davidoff writes that left-hander Jerry Blevins is “clearly” interested in returning to the Mets. However, the market for left-handed relievers has been strong (see: Brett Cecil, Mike Dunn and Marc Rzepczynski), and Blevins could yet be in line for a multi-year deal.
There could be lower-cost options; J.P. Howell, Javier Lopez and old friend Chris Capuano are still available, as is Charlie Furbush, who underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in August and is still on the mend. The trade market and the spring waiver wire, of course, could present further avenues to obtaining some left-handed relief help. Failing that, the Mets’ internal options include Sean Gilmartin, Josh Edgin, Josh Smoker and non-roster invite Adam Wilk.