Yesterday afternoon, on the day of the trade deadline, the Mets acquired slugging Cincinnati right fielder Jay Bruce, to varying reactions on Twitter and in the media. If you like old school statistics like RBI, in which Bruce leads the National League with 80, you liked the deal. If you have more appreciation for Wins Above Replacement, in which Bruce is 103rd in the National League with 0.7, you didn’t like the deal.
It’s fairly easy to make the case for or against given the diversity of the things that have happened to Jay Bruce in his career. As recently as 2013, Bruce posted 4.2 WAR and posted a slash line of .262/.329/.478, finishing with a wRC+ of 117 and enough votes to come in 10th for the National League MVP. He followed that up in 2014 and 2015 by being below replacement level and posting a collective .223 batting average and 85 wRC+.
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Bruce’s .265/.316/.559 slash line this season with 25 home runs (125 wRC+) is a welcome addition to the Mets lineup. His left-handed bat helps a team that has been better against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching. He is only 29 years old, and the Mets have a $13 million option on him for next year.
However the issues that present with Bruce — namely, his poor defense and his downright redundancy in the Mets outfield — make the move a head-scratcher, especially at the cost of Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell.
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Depending on who you ask, Bruce is either a bad fielder or a very bad fielder. At age 29, and post knee surgery, that situation is not going to improve. In an article a few weeks before the deadline, August Fagerstrom did a great job looking at Bruce’s defensive decline. Bruce currently had a -13 DRS and -11.5 UZR, figures which are mostly supported by somewhat lackluster Inside Edge data. But he doesn’t have to be that bad a defender in order to be costing the Mets runs out there (and I’d definitely encourage you to watch the GIFs that August put in his article).
Eno Sarris beat me to the roster aspect of it, looking at the fit and declaring that Bruce “makes the Mets more Mets.” The Mets already have two major league starting caliber left-handed corner outfielders in Michael Conforto and Curtis Granderson while they are starting Wilmer Flores, Matt Reynolds and James Loney just about every day in the infield. Even if you complain about Conforto and Granderson’s production, there’s little doubt that they are every day major leaguers — while the same cannot be said about Flores, Reynolds and Loney.
In terms of style, Eno is correct that Bruce does what the Mets already do — he strikes out and hits home runs. ZiPS projects him to hit 11 more home runs this year and to strike out 23.4% of his at bats. If he hits higher than .250, that will be a bonus. Does he play when the opposing starter is left-handed, against whom he’s hit .228/.294/.425 lifetime?
Just as importantly, there is good reason to question whether Bruce’s bounce back at the plate this season is for real. Bruce put up four seasons with a wRC+ between 117-124 from 2010 to 2013, before cratering in 2014. His 124 wRC+ line so far this year would tie his career-best, but there are reasons to be skeptical that a player who is 29 and post-knee surgery might be in the best hitting condition of his life. Although it’s great that he appears to have recovered from his surgery, his 20.8% HR/FB percentage is a career high and is likely to come back to Earth after the trade.
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It is hard to recall another move made in the Sandy Alderson tenure as GM that was as head-scratching as this one. The Mets were 2.5 games out of the second wild card entering play yesterday, in third place of four teams fighting for it. They’ve been dropping like a rock in the standings, having gone 25-28 in June and July while being outscored. Their roster has been decimated by injuries to their starting third baseman (Wright), first baseman (Duda), shortstop (Cabrera), centerfielder (Lagares), superstar leftfielder (Cespedes) and one of their ace pitchers (Harvey). The team that takes the field for the Mets nightly bears little resemblance to the one we had such high hopes about in the spring.
So why did the Mets buy, instead of sell? Why did they buy a player whose only strengths are ones that people complained the team was too dependent on? Why did they buy a player who can only play corner outfield, when some of their only competent players are already there? And why did they do it at the cost of Dilson Herrera, who the Mets were likely planning on having be their starting second baseman next year?
Personally, my hunch is that Jay Bruce was not going to be the only move that Alderson made at the deadline, but something fell through. The Mets were rumored to be in, then out, then back in again on Jonathan Lucroy up through the final hours of the trading deadline. Perhaps they tried to thread the needle, acquiring both Bruce and Lucroy (who are both under contract for 2017) but missed, ending up with only one. Acquiring both, even at a significant cost of prospects (Herrera and perhaps Smith and Cecchini?) would have been a brilliant stroke to “go for it” since the team would be serious contenders in 2016 and would not have to address vacancies at those positions until the year after next.
But unfortunately, they only got Bruce — a positive yet perplexing move unlikely to put them into the playoffs and which cost them a player who was likely to be a contributor to the 2017 team. The Mets were not decisive, which is the only thing I asked them to do in posts on this blog, in tweets, and on the MetsBlog Q&A Cast with Matt Cerrone. Buy if you’re going to buy, sell if you’re going to sell, and commit to the plan.
I’m a huge fan of Sandy Alderson, but nobody’s perfect.