This past season sucked. That may be blunt, but it’s probably the best way to summarize the 2017 Mets. By way of poor play and injuries, fans watched the front office dismantle a team that was only a year removed from back-to-back playoff appearances and two years removed from a pennant. They said goodbye to key pieces like Addison Reed, Neil Walker, Jay Bruce, and Lucas Duda as they await the team to retool for the 2018 season.
From Shohei Ohtani to Lorenzo Cain, the Mets have been linked all over the place when it comes to free agency rumors. Outside of bringing in an established reliever like Bryan Shaw or Joe Smith, the Mets are also reportedly looking at Carlos Santana and Logan Morrison, both first basemen. With roughly $60 million coming off the books, you shouldn’t expect the bargain-basement Wilpons to make an Eric Hosmer/$150 million type splash, but it does seem realistic that the team will bring in someone. Short of a big move like Cain, who the Mets are unlikely to sign anyway, the best outcome would be to bring Jay Bruce back.
With the Houston Astros officially champions of the baseball world, the offseason is upon us and it is time for the Mets to improve their roster if they hope to compete in 2018. What better way to kick things off than to bring about the return of Jay Bruce? Versatile enough to play first base if necessary, Bruce is the power bat the Mets need to legitimize their lineup and has proven that he is comfortable and able to thrive in the face of the New York media.
How We Got Here
At the 2016 trade deadline, the New York Mets found themselves in a similar position to the year before. One year prior, minutes before the deadline elapsed, the Mets pulled off the unthinkable and acquired veteran slugger Yoenis Cespedes from the Detroit Tigers. The acquisition of Cespedes breathed life back into a season that seemed lost, eventually propelling the Amazins’ to a division title and National League pennant.
With a record of 54-50, Sandy Alderson hoped to recapture the magic of 2015 by making an eleventh hour trade as the Mets trailed the Washington Nationals by 6.5 games in the division and sat 2.5 games behind the Miami Marlins for the second Wild Card slot. Desperate for offense, Alderson shipped Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell to the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Jay Bruce.
The acquisition of Bruce filled a major need for the Mets in the form of a major league caliber power bat, but raised eyebrows because of the already convoluted outfield situation the ball club possessed. The acquisition of Bruce proved to be a tricky proposition as it forced the team to create a patchwork platoon in center field consisting of Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Lagares, Alejandro De Aza, Curtis Granderson, Justin Ruggiano, and Michael Conforto.
To say Bruce’s performance when he landed in Queens was underwhelming would be an understatement. The Texas native posted a .219/.294/.391 slash line with only eight home runs and 19 RBIs over the course of 169 at-bats. As a result, fans and members of the media harshly criticized the move to ship off a middle-tier prospect like Herrera in exchange for the apparently impotent Bruce. Despite his poor showing, the team rallied together and found themselves in the top Wild Card spot when the season came to a close.
After his poor stint with the Mets in 2016, the expectation was that the club would either decline his $13 million option and allow him to become a free agent or accept it and seek to use him as trade bait to acquire bullpen help. Sandy Alderson ended up doing the latter and as spring training came and went, no market materialized for Bruce. This stay of execution gave Bruce a second chance to endear himself to Mets fans, a second chance that he would not waste.
In a season where the Mets experienced one of the most devastating injury plagues that some teams don’t even see over the course of a decade, Bruce was one of the few players that was able to remain healthy. Not only did he remain healthy, but Bruce turned out to be one of the most, if not the most, important offensive pieces for this team. The 30-year-old posted a slash line of .256/.321/.520 in 406 at-bats, all landing above his career numbers. He also slugged 29 home runs and drove in 75 RBIs, both team leads despite the fact that he finished the season elsewhere.
With his contract expiring at the conclusion of the 2017 season, the Mets found themselves in a predicament with Bruce: hold steady and offer him a qualifying offer after the season in hopes that if chooses to sign elsewhere, they would at least be compensated with a draft pick, or sell him off to the highest bidder. Even though the trade deadline elapsed with Bruce still on the roster, the Mets still found a trade partner for him after placing him on trade waivers. On Aug. 9, Bruce was sent to the Cleveland Indians in exchange for a minor league right-hander by the name of Ryder Ryan.
Bruce joined a Cleveland team that would catch fire almost immediately, going on a 22-game win streak and winning the American League Central. And despite losing to the Yankees in five games, Bruce played a huge role in the ALDS, launching two big home runs and recording four RBIs in the series.
Reason #1: The Uncertainty of When Michael Conforto Can Return
For Michael Conforto, 2017 was the year where the young hitter was finally able to put it all together. The ironic thing about the whole situation was that he was a few bad breaks — or a healthy Brandon Nimmo — from starting the season in Triple-A. Instead, Conforto ended up crashing the big league roster and was an integral part of the Mets’ offense in 2017 mainly utilized in the lead off spot.
To the soul-crushing dismay of many Mets fans, the injury bug finally caught up to Conforto on Aug. 24 when, after a swing and miss at a Robbie Ray pitch, he collapsed in stomach-churning pain. X-rays were negative, but an MRI revealed that Conforto had torn the posterior capsule in his right shoulder. After seeking alternative opinions, the 24-year-old opted for surgery to repair the injury.
Doctors were able to stabilize the shoulder joint, hopefully reducing the chance of a reoccurrence, but due to the nature of the injury, there is no specific timetable dictating when he would be able to begin rehabbing and eventually return. Joel Sherman reported last week that Conforto could be swinging a bat by late January, which potentially spells a quicker recovery than expected, but the bottom line is that the best case scenario is a late April return. When it comes to injured Mets players, setbacks are almost a foregone conclusion, so we have to figure that this team could very well see a few months without their newest breakout star.
The potentially long-term absence of Conforto is even more of a reason the Mets should pursue Bruce in free agency. As a proven corner outfielder, Bruce could offset the absence of Conforto and even surpass his production if he posts a season like he did in the entirety of 2017. Without Conforto, Yoenis Cespedes remains relatively unprotected in the lineup given that there are no other significant bats on this roster that can be slotted into the three or four hole. Bringing back a player of Bruce’s caliber provides this team with a cleanup hitter capable of preventing teams from pitching around Cespedes. When Conforto returns, pairing the three of them together makes even more sense. A lineup built on the foundation of Cespedes, Conforto, and Bruce is one that can contend with the best of the National League, especially if Cespedes and Conforto both return to full health and perform to their potential. He may not be an ideal fit for center field, but Conforto has shown that he can man the position, allowing Bruce to remain in right. The organization continues to push the narrative that Juan Lagares is finally healthy and ready to take major strides in terms of improving at the plate, but the fact of the matter is that the best possible outfield configuration for this team (short of a miraculous Lorenzo Cain signing) is Cespedes in left, Conforto in center, and Bruce in right.
Reason #2: A Lack of Confidence in Dominic Smith’s Future
Based on the unexpectedly disappointing start to Dom Smith’s big league career, the Mets are evaluating alternatives options as the offseason begins to heat up. This is drastic departure from the confidence this organization had in Smith as he tore up Triple-A last season. Last Monday, Sandy Alderson went on the record to state that he was not committed to Smith as this team’s starting first baseman, citing his poor September play.
It’s interesting that the Mets organization is so willing to give up on Smith in such a small sample size: a mere 167 at-bats and 44 starts at first base. Reports have even gone as far to speculate that Smith could become a trade chip if the Mets successfully pursue a first base option outside the organization. Growing pains are a natural part of prospect development, but there seems to to be real concern here. Nevertheless, amidst Smith’s struggles at the plate and questionable defensive play, this leaves yet another opportunity to justify the return of Jay Bruce.
Rookie manager Mickey Callaway has already expressed plans for the ball club to abandon the normal practice of carrying seven relievers in favor an additional eighth one. The move makes sense when you consider that the new skipper intends to pull his starters much earlier in games to avoid facing lineups for the third time. What this means is that the Mets bench is going to be perennially short-handed and positional versatility becomes exponentially more valuable.
Now, we know Jay Bruce is capable of playing all three outfield positions. Center field is a bit of a stretch in his old age, but, in case of emergency, the 30-year-old does have 36 career appearances there (most recently with the Reds in 2016). The major selling point for Bruce’s versatility is that he can man first base and, despite only 117 career innings at the position, has done so admirably. Once Michael Conforto returns, the Mets could presumably construct a productive and dangerous first base platoon of Jay Bruce and Wilmer Flores if Smith isn’t living up to expectations.
Sandy Alderson has been spelling out the potential return of Bruce as he has repeatedly stated that any outfielder he acquires must have experience and be willing to regularly play first base. The Mets are prioritizing versatility and an insurance policy for first base. Bruce is expected to land a contract of three to four years somewhere in the $13-$15 million range per season. While the Mets may hesitate to commit $60 million on a player on the wrong side of 30, the organization has done so in the past, as demonstrated by the Curtis Granderson signing.
The bottom line is the Mets need a power bat in their lineup if they’re going to compete in 2018. Without a player like Bruce, their lineup is simply not deep enough. That is, of course, before you consider that Michael Conforto may not be ready in time for the season and also may not be the same player right away. When the core of your lineup is Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Conforto, and Jay Bruce supplemented by role players like Wilmer Flores, Asdrubal Cabrera, and emerging players like Amed Rosario and Dominic Smith (hopefully), you have the makings of a team that is just as formidable as any other in the National League. Get on the horn, Sandy. Bring him home.
Photo credit: Joe Nicholson – USA Today Sports