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A look into the Mets’ signing of Jay Bruce

Bruce is back in Queens, but how does he fit?

Texas Rangers v New York Mets

Wednesday night, the Mets gave the mostly-dormant offseason a bit of a jolt when they brought Jay Bruce back to Flushing on a three-year, $39 million contract. The move came as a genuine surprise to those who had doubts about the Mets’ willingness and/or ability to spend and raised some optimism about the team’s financial state. But was it a good signing? Is Bruce worth the contract?

Well, first of all, it’s tough to argue that Bruce isn’t at least worth the money. In fact, the dollar amount is exactly what MLB Trade Rumors predicted he would get in their free agent predictions back in November. What’s more, Ken Rosenthal reports the contract is backloaded, meaning Bruce will only make $10 million in 2018, but $14.5 million each of the last two years of the deal. Given that the estimated price of 1 WAR these days is around $10-11 million, getting Bruce, who was worth 2.7 fWAR last year, for $10 million in 2018 is a borderline steal, and $14.5 million per year afterward is not exactly an overpay for his 2017 production, either.

That said, there’s no guarantee that his 2017 production is what you should expect from the 30-year-old going forward, either. Last year was the first season in which Bruce posted an fWAR over 1.0 since 2013, and his 118 wRC+ was his highest since 2012. Mets fans saw the downside to Bruce in 2016 when he hit just .219/.294/.391 in his 50 games with the team. Now, Bruce has changed his swing since then, and hit more fly balls in 2017 (46.7%) than he had in years, but the risks are always prevalent with the enigmatic Bruce.

Secondly, Bruce does make sense for the Mets, as he checks some important boxes. Most importantly, he adds another solid bat in the Mets’ lineup, which they definitely needed; his 118 wRC+ would currently be the third-best 2017 mark in the Mets’ lineup, behind Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto. And of course, Bruce’s 29 homers he hit for the Mets last year were more than any other Mets player had all season.

And positionally, Bruce does come in handy for 2018 as well, given that Conforto is questionable to start the season and the Mets already sorely lack outfield depth of any kind. Without either Conforto or Bruce, the Mets would have sent out an outfield left to right of Cespedes, Juan Lagares, and Brandon Nimmo, which would have been an underwhelming group, to say the least. But Bruce gives the Mets another outfielder as a safety net for Conforto starting the year on the disabled list, allowing them to go with a center field platoon of Lagares and Nimmo in the absence of Conforto.

That’s not all, though. The Mets apparently expect Bruce to get at least a little more acquainted at first base. This is important because Dominic Smith is a huge question mark going into the year. Bruce provides a hedge for Smith in case the young first baseman falters at the major league level. If that happens, Bruce could move to first base when Conforto returns from the disabled list.

That said, Bruce isn’t exactly a perfect fit on the Mets, either. The Mets are currently only rostering one true center fielder in Lagares, so signing a fourth corner outfielder is a bit curious. Plus, Mets fans are well aware that Bruce’s defense is not his strong suit, and one of the team’s main undoings the past few seasons has been its defense. Bruce doesn’t help with that problem, and it’s fair to expect his defense to get even worse as he ages into his 30s. Moreover, putting Bruce in right field pushes Conforto to center field. That’s a position he can play in a pinch, but he doesn’t have too much experience there. Ideally you don’t want him playing there on a full-time basis.

And because of that, the fit for Bruce on the team beyond 2018—when Conforto is ostensibly back to full-strength—seems tenuous. Now, if Smith completely falters, then Bruce can become the full-time first baseman in 2019 and 2020. But given that he’s only played 12 career games at first base, it seems a little dangerous to pencil him in as your full-time first baseman going forward. And if Smith hits, then Bruce is restricted to the outfield, where there’s at least a decent chance his defense becomes a significant problem. And if it’s not Bruce’s defense that’s the problem, then it could very well be Conforto’s center field defense that’s the issue. Any way you slice it, it’s a gamble and a situation you don’t want to risk putting yourself in.

Overall, Bruce is not a perfect fit for the team going forward, and there is definitely an argument to be made that a center fielder like Lorenzo Cain would make far more sense than signing another corner outfielder. So it’s probably not the ideal signing, but it is a bargain contract for a good player who clearly helps the team in 2018, so it’s tough to say it’s a bad deal, either. Of course, Bruce alone doesn’t fix all the team’s needs, which means there is still work for GM Sandy Alderson and the rest of the Mets’ front office to do this offseason.