When the offseason began, I thought the Mets would pay one of the big-three free agents this season, and I hoped it would be Matt Holliday. Then, I debated which of the other two, probably overrated, big free agents would be a worse signing.
Now that the signing is all but official, however, I'm happy for a number of reasons--many of them unrelated to the immediate reality that Jason Bay is a Met. Firstly, two annoying mantras that have been shoved down the throats of Mets fans lately, can mercifully die. Whatever your views on Jason Bay's fielding prowess, his signing with the Mets can in no way be said to demonstrate a "renewed and sincere commitment to build a team around speed and defense." The implicit notion here is that, because the Mets play in a pitcher's park, there is some strategic value to recreating the 1985 Cardinals. And while park factors are always a valid consideration, building an entire roster to perfectly fit a ballpark is the kind of superfluous activity reserved for general managers whose teams are so well constructed that any transaction is like Paley's Watchmaker-God adjusting a sprocket. Lame-Duck GM's who need to win now, don't overhaul their entire roster to make it "faster." Maybe someday the Mets will use stellar outfield defense and Citi Field to raise the value of flyball-pitchers and then systematically ship them elsewhere. We all know the people chanting "defense and pitching" these days, however, are really just a bunch of bunt-loving jabronies drooling over the idea of "the little things."
The second annoying rally cry we won't have to hear anymore is the call for a "deadline" on the Bay negotiations. The idea that the Mets needed to tell Jason Bay "take it or leave it" for the sake of their "dignity" is backwards. Poorly-run teams, coming off poor seasons, don't pursue top free agents out of the goodness of their hearts. If Jason Bay really had reservations about coming to the Mets, or would rather play in Beirut, that should tell the team something about their prestige, not that Jason Bay is ungrateful or greedy. Prestige may not win ballgames, but it is no small thing. Except for nerds who write or read Mets blogs, most people don't have some analytical knowledge to base their opinion of a team on. For the average fan, the casual fan, and many of the players (and probably more than a few members of the Mets' front office), whether or not the team wins determines their overall opinion of the franchise. This is why the loudest criticism of the Oliver Perez signing could be heard in May 2009, not January. This is why I can talk until I'm blue in the face about how much I like Neal Huntington's MO, and still be told (often by Pirates fans) that the Pirates are simply losers. If Jason Bay worried that the Mets would not surround him with the talent needed to win, it means he's smart and I like him already.
I am also pleased to finally have a left-fielder that can hit. With the possible exception of an ever-injured Cliff Floyd, this concept is completely foreign to modern Mets fans. If Mets fans loved Gary Sheffield, the league-average DH/clubhouse nuisance, because he could actually hit a little bit, Bay-44 jerseys will be ubiquitous by June. Unlike other defensively-challenged players, Bay's problems -- bad first move, conservatism -- aren't especially noticeable. Just watching the games, Jason Bay will seem like a superstar.
The converse to the "fielding and speed" mantra, however, is the idea that the Mets "needed to add a power hitter," making Bay a perfect fit. There is no power quota for a successful team. The 2009 Mets hit few homers because they had few good players and a few good players with down years. Good players do not necessarily hit homeruns, however, as many other factors contribute to a player's value. Here, my original reservations lie.
Bay is a below-average fielder, but not as bad as some make him out to be. Going off his UZR, a good projection for Bay's defense next season would be -10 runs. The advanced metrics are hardly universal, however, as John Dewan's system rated him as -1 run last season and TotalZone somewhat questionably tallied him at +4. Other factors are in play here, too, as Bay played on bad knees in 2007, his first monumentally bad fielding season according to UZR, and in the notorious Fenway LF in 2008 and 2009. This readout of Dewan's plus/minus numbers might give you a sense of how the green monster affects fielding numbers:
Among the defensively-challenged masher-leftfielders, Jason Bay also seems unusually fast and lithe. If Adam Dunn is a "butcher," then Jason Bay is the surgeon, precise and overly cautious, focused on a small area. For this reason, I'm receptive to the idea that Bay's numbers got wrecked by his knees and then by Fenway, creating the illusion that his defensive decline was a lot worse than reality. I have him down for -7 runs in left and I think that's a fair projection, which he could certainly do better or worse than.
On the hitting side, his talent is undeniable, but much has been made of his "old-body skills" (high K, HR, and BB). After looking at some comparable players -- Jay Buhner and Tim Salmon seemed particularly apt -- I'm not worried about a sudden dropoff. In the later years of the contract he could see a decline, but I think he's just as likely to maintain the same level for the time being. Nobody hits a .400 wOBA in the AL East and then sees a sudden decline because they moved to a big park in the NL and turned 32. I expect ~30 runs above average.
As for the contract...what did you expect? The Mets gave him basically what the Red Sox offered but with a fifth vesting option, which is easily attainable. For Omar Minaya, a lame duck, the vesting option is a great way to secure the player he needs to save his job while also deflecting the criticism associated with "guaranteed 5 years."
No, he's not Matt Holliday. Yes, the contract is kind of stupid. But Jason Bay is a heck of a consolation prize and one of those fabled "complementary players" that help Reyes/Wright reach a championship.