Earlier tonight, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported that teams have come away from initial talks with J.D. Martinez’s camp that he’s seeking a $200MM deal, and Crasnick now tweets that clubs are under the impression that free-agent right fielder Jay Bruce is seeking $80-90MM over a five-year term.
Certainly, it’s worth keeping in mind that virtually every agent will come out aiming high early in free agency. But an early run at a five-year deal likely indicates a confidence out of Bruce’s camp that he can secure at least a four-year pact down the line. It’s a steep ask for Bruce, who the Mets were unable to trade just one year ago in a crowded market for corner bats.
Bruce’s 2017 campaign has undoubtedly boosted his stock, though. The 30-year-old (31 on April 3) hit .254/.324/.508 with 36 home runs for the Mets and Indians this past season and turned in dramatically improved defensive contributions in right field. Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating felt that Bruce improved by anywhere from 10 to 16 runs over his dismal 2016 season, with each metric pegging him as an above-average defender this year. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric pegged him at one out below average. At worst, it seems fair to count on him as a respectable right fielder in 2018, and it’s worth noting that he did log 91 innings at first base in 2017, as well.
The defensive turnaround isn’t necessarily without explanation. Bruce underwent arthroscopic knee surgery early in the 2014 season and rushed back to the Reds in less than three weeks’ time. He’d carried a strong defensive reputation to that point in his career — twice a +16 DRS mark, for instance — but turned in largely unimpressive numbers in the coming years. It’s possible that further distancing himself from that knee procedure helped to improve his mobility.
All that said, a $16-18MM annual salary on a five-year term (or even on a four-year pact) is ambitious for Bruce. It’s unlikely that his glovework will return to its previous heights, and he hasn’t posted even league-average offensive output against left-handed pitching since the 2013 campaign, by measure of wRC+. This past season, he slashed a meager .222/.285/.433 against lefties (albeit with a gaudy .268/.341/.542 slash while holding the platoon advantage).
Bruce’s camp will also have to deal with the reality that there will be no shortage of corner outfield options available both in free agency and on the trade market. While Bruce is probably the top free-agent alternative to Martinez now that Justin Upton has signed a new deal with the Angels, the free-agent market still offers useful veterans like Carlos Gomez and Jon Jay as well as bounceback candidates Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Bautista and Andre Ethier. Over on the trade market, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Avisail Garcia and Gerardo Parra are among the possibly available names for teams eyeing corner-outfield bats.
When looking at recent comparables, Bruce seems more similar to Josh Reddick, who signed a four-year $52MM contract last winter, than he does to the Upton and Yoenis Cespedes tier of free agent sluggers. A three-year deal for Bruce seems definitively attainable and a four-year outlay is a clear possibility, but it’d be a surprise to see him reel in a five-year guarantee — especially at such a lofty annual value.