When the Mets signed Jay Bruce this offseason to a 3/$39 deal, the reaction was very positive. Everyone was glad to see the Mets sign a name free agent and most thought the terms were either fair or a win for the club. Certainly, I was aligned with the majority. But given how the rest of the winter has played out, including the continuation of the slow market, along with the Mets’ willingness to continue to participate in free agency, it seems fair to wonder – If given a chance to go back in time, would the Mets still re-sign Bruce at those terms?
Let’s state for the record that this in in no way, shape or form a knock on Bruce. He was extremely productive in his time with the club last year, has been universally praised for being a good teammate and a positive presence in the locker room and if he stays healthy he’s likely to outperform his contract. In an ordinary year, this would be an outstanding signing.
But this is no ordinary year.
If the Mets passed on Bruce, but were still willing the use his salary elsewhere, there are several different ways they could have proceeded this offseason. They could have taken his $13 million and combined it with the $8 million given to Jason Vargas and shopped in the high end of the starting pitching market. Or they could have kept Vargas and signed another high-end reliever to further bolster the bullpen. Many would say they could have gone after Lorenzo Cain, even if the 2017 Dexter Fowler experience would cause others to be wary. Or perhaps they could have split it for two players, getting a 1B and OF for the same total money. Maybe that $13 million would get them Logan Morrison and Carlos Gomez, for instance.
Or they could have used the funds to explore options in the trade market. Perhaps in lieu of prospects, the Mets could have given cash to the budget-conscious Marlins for J.T. Realmuto. Or perhaps that money would have made a Jason Kipnis deal more palatable.
Bruce gives the team lefty power, which they certainly need with the loss of Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda and Neil Walker from last year’s Opening Day roster, as well as the loss of Michael Conforto for some undetermined amount of time in 2018. But he’s not an ideal fit defensively, especially if he’s only playing 1B in a pinch. Which is why this question about having a do-over is relevant.
Bruce is a very nice value signing. But if nearly everyone available is a value signing, does overall fit take on more importance than it typically does?
There’s more to fit than just where the player can be positioned defensively. It seems clear the Mets value the proven ability to perform in New York. And we’ve already mentioned clubhouse presence and lineup balance. Perhaps all of those more than make up for the corner OF issue.
But bringing on Bruce makes playing time for both Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo problematic once Conforto returns. Maybe that’s not an issue. Or maybe it means never getting the benefits of Nimmo’s high OBP or to test to see if Lagares’ offseason work to overhaul his offensive game pays dividends.
When you’re banking so much on injured pitchers to return to form, perhaps the last thing you can do is gamble on Nimmo’s small sample or Lagares’ offseason workouts. The relative safety of Bruce’s offense could be worth more to a team with big question marks elsewhere. Yet it seems clear the Mets do see value in retaining both players. They refused to deal Nimmo for Josh Harrison and a rumored Lagares-Joe Panik deal – which would have saved them money both now and in the future – never seemed to have much traction.
Earlier in the offseason, I suggested that the Mets not setting a firm payroll was not necessarily a negative because it gave them flexibility they otherwise wouldn’t have. If at the end of the World Series, the Mets had set a firm payroll, no one would have imagined it being at the current $150 million plus that it is. It appears that the Mets saw an opportunity and acted.
Perhaps the fit in all of the Mets’ offseason moves is that it allows them the flexibility to move on from them if the pitching goes south again. If they went in on Cain or one of the top-level pitchers and they had five-year (or more) deals, it would be tough to flip them at the deadline if half the team was on the DL once again. But all four of the guys that they did sign should be desirable trade targets if they’re healthy and producing in July while the rest of the squad is disabled.
From the Mets’ point of view, Bruce was both a value signing and good fit. There’s a moveable salary, lefty power and the ability to play in NY, among other things. They’ve talked about his clubhouse presence quite a bit. Perhaps that’s nothing more than a hard sell to fans who always talk about intangibles. But even if they value it just as much as their posture indicates, it’s yet another reason for them to be happy with the deal they made five weeks ago.