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Curtis Granderson should start in right field when Yoenis Cespedes returns to Mets

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The Mets will have a crowded outfield, but Jay Bruce shouldn’t be guaranteed playing time.

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Barring any further setbacks in his rehab from a hamstring injury, Yoenis Cespedes should be back in the Mets’ lineup sometime in the near future. Even though things have been going well for the team’s offense this year, his return will not be insignificant. It’s an oversimplification to pin a team’s record entirely on one player’s presence, but the Mets are a better team when Cespedes plays.

That Cespedes will get a ton of playing time upon his return should obviously be a given. Coming off two great seasons in 2015 and 2016, the majority of which he spent as a Met, Cespedes got off to a fantastic start this year before the hamstring injury sidelined him. He hit .270/.373/.619 with six home runs and a 159 wRC+ in just 75 plate appearances. His strikeouts were slightly down from the past few years, and his walk rate is sitting at a career-best 14.7 percent. Maybe he won’t quite be that good the rest of the way, but he should be great.

In that regard, Cespedes is not alone. Michael Conforto has rebounded incredibly well from a down season last year and has been one of the better hitters in baseball. With a .303/.414/.618 line, 14 home runs, and a 170 wRC+, he clearly shouldn’t come out of the team’s everyday lineup. He’ll probably have to play center field, which isn’t ideal, but the Mets’ only defensive asset in center—Juan Lagares—isn’t a good enough hitter to even come close to compensating for that difference.

If Cespedes is in left and Conforto is in center on a regular basis, that leaves the Mets with two starting-caliber players for the starting gig in right field: Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce. Despite an incredibly bad month from Granderson and a spectacular month from Bruce in April, it’s Granderson who should be at the top of the depth chart in right field moving forward.

Such a suggestion might still be met with skepticism, but the differences in the two outfielders’ stats on the season have closed rapidly since the beginning of May. Through the end of April, Granderson had a .128/.174/.221 line with—and this is not a typo—a 5 wRC+. Bruce was the polar opposite, with a .292/.370/.584 line and a 154 wRC+, one of his best months at the plate over the past few seasons. But both stat lines were out of line with what the players had done over the past three seasons.

From 2014 through 2016, Granderson was clearly the superior hitter when accounting for league and park. Over those three seasons, all of which he spent with the Mets, Granderson hit .241/.342/.436 with a 118 wRC+. Bruce, who spent two-and-two-thirds of those seasons with the Reds and a third of a season with the Mets, hit .231/.295/.440 with a 94 wRC+. There was the difference in on-base percentage, which was significant, and the wildly different home environments for power hitting between Citi Field and Great American Ball Park.

In fairness to Bruce, the best of his single seasons was the most recent one, which he finished with a 111 wRC+. Granderson, who is six years older than Bruce, put up a 131 wRC+ in 2015 as one of the best players on the Mets team that won the National League pennant. He followed that up with a 114 mark last year and 30 home runs, just three shy of Bruce’s total for the season.

The differences in offensive production seem particularly relevant now given the way Granderson and Bruce have performed since May 1. Bruce has looked more like his previous self with eight home runs—a good tally—but a lackluster overall line of .220/.289/.465. And Granderson has hit more like his previous self, too, with a .260/.371/.490 line. He’s hit just four home runs, but the overall output has clearly been the better of the duo. The month of April still counts, but it’s not exactly surprising that both players have regressed toward their recent norms.

While Granderson doesn’t have a good arm, especially for right field, he’s been the better defender overall. He’s been the better baserunner, too, and those traits, combined with the differences at the plate, explain why Granderson was worth 8.9 fWAR between 2014 and 2016 and Bruce was worth just 0.2.

It’s tough to say where the Mets would be right now without Bruce’s great month of April. But as bad as Granderson was to begin the year, it’s Bruce who should see the greatest reduction in playing time moving forward.

Depending on how things go for the team over the next few weeks, one or both of Granderson and Bruce could be traded elsewhere—whether the Mets decide they’re sellers or look to turn one of the outfielders into a piece that could help them make a postseason push. There will be opportunities to work in all of the outfielders as guys get rest, including Cespedes, but the typical outfield alignment for as long as the roster looks the way it does should be Cespedes-Conforto-Granderson.