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The case for keeping Jay Bruce

Despite his struggles in New York, Bruce is an established power hitter whose value may be getting overlooked.

MLB: New York Mets at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Bruce is probably the least popular player on the Mets. In fact, many are treating his departure from the team before Opening Day as a foregone conclusion. Despite his low standing among Mets fans, is it possible that Bruce’s value to the team is being sold short?

First, let’s acknowledge Bruce’s negatives—and there are quite a few. In his 50 games as a Met last year, the outfielder hit just .219/.294/.391 (81 wRC+), with eight home runs, 19 RBIs, 14 runs scored, and 0.4 fWAR. Bruce’s poor production came amid reports that he had asked the Reds not to trade him to the Mets, and that he “definitely wasn’t as comfortable with New York” as he was with other cities.

Bruce’s defense has been a major issue, even before joining the Mets. Last year, his -11 DRS mark was tied for the ninth-worst total among outfielders and his -8.9 UZR tied for the 12th worst.

While offense is clearly his strength, even that part of his game can be obscured by his big home run and RBI totals. Due to his poor on-base skills, Bruce posted a 111 wRC+ last year, indicating that he was good, but not a whole lot better than a league-average hitter. As a result of his poor defense and limited offensive profile, Bruce produced just 0.9 fWAR in 2016, a lower total than that of Michael Conforto (1.3 fWAR) and an identical total to that of Juan Lagares—despite the fact that Bruce had more plate appearances than both players combined.

There’s clearly a lot to be concerned about with Bruce. Still, it’s important not to overlook the valuable skills that he brings to the table. First and foremost is his power. Bruce’s 33 home runs ranked seventh in the National League last year, and his .506 slugging percentage ranked 13th among qualified players. No Met hit more home runs in 2016, and only Yoenis Cespedes slugged better. Simply put, Bruce is one of the best power hitters on a team that relies on the home run ball to score runs.

Second, Bruce improved dramatically in each of the last three years. As you can see below, he made significant strides in virtually every offensive category—and in his overall production—every year since 2014. This is an encouraging sign. It also leaves open the possibility that he could once again approach the player he was from 2010 to 2013, when he hit .262/.337/.489 (119 wRC+), and averaged 30 homers, 94 RBIs, 86 runs scored, and 3.7 fWAR per year. The fact that Bruce will turn 30 on Opening Day suggests that it’s not too late in his career to continue his turnaround.

2014 .217 .281 .373 18 66 71 79 -0.8
2015 .226 .294 .434 26 87 72 92 0.1
2016 .250 .309 .506 33 99 74 111 0.9

Something else to at least consider is that—granted, in a very small sample size—Bruce’s defense did improve when he got to the Mets. In 351.2 innings in right field, Bruce posted a very respectable 2 DRS and a 4.0 UZR, which translates into an 11.1 UZR/150. Again, take that with an enormous grain of salt given the sample size, but it’s possible that the Mets got better defense out of Bruce through better positioning.

The last factor that Bruce has going for him is his contract. At $13 million, his deal for 2017 is eminently reasonable in today’s game, especially for a middle-of-the-order hitter.

All in all, Bruce represents an extremely mixed bag with some glaring flaws and some quite valuable skills. The question is whether the Mets see a role for his unique skill set on their team in 2017. By all indications, the answer seems to be “no.” Could that be shortsighted?

The Mets seem committed to an outfield of Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, and Conforto, with Lagares serving as the fourth outfielder. If all four players are healthy and play to their potential, that’s a strong outfield. It’s worth noting, however, that that’s the same outfield the Mets had at the beginning of last season, before a combination of injuries and poor performance convinced them to trade a highly touted prospect for Bruce.

What, exactly, has changed since then to suggest that the Mets no longer “need” Bruce? Neither Conforto nor Lagares has yet proven himself to be a reliable major league starter. Cespedes missed a chunk of games last year due to injury, and Granderson will be 36 on Opening Day.

This is not to say that the Mets should necessarily hold on to Bruce; only that they shouldn’t rush to trade him at all costs. For example, simply dumping Bruce’s salary in exchange for limited talent—or even minor league talent—seems unbecoming of a win-now team in a big market. This is especially true given the relatively uncertain state of the Mets’ outfield.

Mark Suleymanov at DRaysBay proposes a Jay-Bruce-for-Drew-Smyly trade between the Mets and the Rays. That is exactly the kind of trade the Mets should consider making. Smyly would fill a very specific need on the Mets’ roster: that of a veteran lefty specialist in the pen who also provides depth to the starting rotation.

The Mets’ most pressing needs are clearly in their bullpen. If the Mets can land one or two useful major league relievers in exchange for Bruce, they should make that trade. If they don’t get that type of quality return, they should consider starting the season with the pieces they have now. A team could do a lot worse than an outfield of Cespedes, Granderson, and Bruce, and the Mets should be wary of giving away an established power hitter like Bruce unless the return justifies doing so.