When the Mets picked up their 2017 option on Jay Bruce last November, it was neither surprising nor exciting. The conventional wisdom was that he was insurance in case the team was unable to bring back Yoenis Cespedes. And if they did re-sign Cespedes, the thought was that he would be flipped elsewhere, most likely for a late-inning, non-closer reliever.
The Mets did ink Cespedes and it certainly appeared from the outside that they tried to trade Bruce for a reliever. But they were unsuccessful, as baseball as a whole seemed to devalue power this offseason. That left the Mets in a quandary. They had four starting outfielders and only three spots to play them. The plan was to have Michael Conforto start the year in the minors, one that frustrated his backers to no end.
While the plan was far from ideal, it was extremely consistent with the club’s M.O. of preferring veterans over rookies/young players whenever possible. The fact that Conforto put up a .174/.267/.330 line over his final 262 PA in 2016 only made it easier for the club to bury him. Yet, injuries gave Conforto a reprieve, as he started the year in the majors, even if it was in a reserve role.
Meanwhile, Bruce, the guy that approximately 98% of the fan base resented and wanted elsewhere, got off to a great start. He had a .954 OPS in April. After hitting a two-week slump in May, Bruce has put up a .917 OPS over his last 41 games. For the year, he leads the team in PA (353), Hits (84), HR (23) and RBI (59). Not bad for a guy that the fans wanted to be traded for a bag of broken bats and a pop-up toaster.
Yet Bruce’s fast start did not prevent Conforto from getting a fair amount of playing time in the first half, too. Much like in 2016, Conforto got off to a great start. But unlike a year ago, he didn’t turn into a pumpkin after experiencing initial success. While it’s true he did fall off from his first 24 games, this time around Conforto has a .252/.396/.477 line in his last 45 games.
Injuries to Cespedes have given Conforto playing time. The slow start by Curtis Granderson also allowed Conforto to keep from being buried on the bench. While Bruce played the vast majority of games, Conforto was still seeing a ton of action through mid-June. But by then Cespedes returned and Granderson was perhaps the best hitter on the team, shaking off his tremendously poor April to put up seven weeks of strong hitting.
Conforto was once again the odd man out. In five games starting June 21, he came off the bench three times and one time that he did start he was lifted in the sixth inning. That early exit was due to being hit on the hand with a pitch, which ultimately led to a DL stint for Conforto. While out with the hand injury, Conforto was selected to be the Mets’ representative for the All-Star game, getting the nod over Bruce. In a season where very little made sense or went right for the Mets, it was somehow appropriate that their token All-Star came down to a guy that they spent all offseason trying to trade and one that they wanted to start the year in the minors.
But when the Mets resume play on July 14, they’ll have the same question they did in late March. How do you handle playing time for four outfielders? Do you bench Bruce, who’s been both very healthy and very productive? Do you bench Conforto, who’s been the team’s best leadoff hitter and who made the All-Star team? Do you bench Granderson, who’s put up a .291/.401/.610 line over his last 207 PA? There’s no easy answer.
One player not mentioned above is Cespedes, who seemingly has sacred cow status. But in his last 15 games, Cespedes has been a complete non-factor. In 63 PA, he’s batting .197 with a .501 OPS. Since being activated from the DL, he has neither walked much nor hit for much power, which has resulted in a .719 OPS despite a .290 BABIP.
While he was a free agent, Cespedes backers loved to talk about how much better the team’s record was with him in the starting lineup. This year when Cespedes starts, the Mets are 17-21.
There are no easy answers when it comes to divvying up playing time for Mets outfielders in the second half. Perhaps a bunch of days off will reinvigorate Cespedes. Maybe an extended layoff will put Granderson into a tailspin. It could be that Bruce will hit like he did with the Mets last year after the break.
The only thing to hope for is that all four guys are given an honest shot. And that contract size or veteran status doesn’t dictate who plays.