With the offseason moving at a snail’s pace across Major League Baseball, the New York Mets have remained patient in the marketplace. As the crosstown Yankees made one of the offseason’s biggest splashes in acquiring National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton, Met fans have grown restless in the organization’s apparent lack of interest in committing what is necessary financially to improve on a club that two years removed from winning the National League pennant came crashing down to a 70-92 record in 2017.
The Mets maintained the stance that they would make additions to the roster and after signing reliever Anthony Swarzak at the Winter Meetings, they broke the ice on the position-player free agent market officially announcing a pair of signings, inking Jay Bruce to a three-year $39M deal, and veteran first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to a one-year contract at the league minimum.
In Bruce, the Mets re-acquire a familiar face and a steady line of expected production. Jay Bruce was a trade deadline acquisition in the Mets’ Wild Card push in 2016, and after a mostly unproductive stretch run, he bounced back nicely with a very productive season in 2017. The Mets sent Bruce to the Indians in August of last year, but left the door open from the start for a possible reunion this offseason.
Breaking down the deal, it is hard to see a scenario where the Mets don’t like the addition in 2018. The contract is back-loaded, so Bruce will only make $10M this season. After losing Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, Neil Walker, and Bruce himself from last year’s lineup, the Mets suddenly were in desperate need of some left-handed power and with 69 home runs over the past two seasons, Bruce is as consistent a source of that power as there is. Bruce’s .324 OBP in 2017 is not great, but if he can maintain that level and not drop back down to the sub .310 marks he posted from 2014-16, the Mets have added what should easily be a top-60 hitter to their lineup if he maintains good health.
While Bruce fills a hole in the lineup in 2018, it does not necessarily make this a good deal over the life of the contract. From a defensive standpoint, Bruce figures to primarily play right field with Yoenis Cespedes manning left field and some combination of Adrian Gonzalez, Dominic Smith, and Wilmer Flores handling duty at first base. In 2018, with Michael Conforto expected to miss at least a month of the regular season, Bruce has guaranteed at-bats in the corner for a stretch of the season.
The issues may begin to arise when Conforto returns. Logically, the only place Conforto can play is in center field if the whole outfield is healthy. While Conforto held his own in center in 2017, his -4 defensive runs saved in only 328 innings suggest that considering him a full-time center fielder is a stretch. The Mets tried to fit a square peg into a round hole with Yoenis Cespedes as a center fielder in 2016, and ultimately decided it was not a sustainable solution and was a detriment to one of their best players. It’s not unreasonable to suspect the Mets quickly discover that Conforto in center is a similar mistake. If Conforto then moves back to a corner, in theory Bruce can slot in at first base. This may work in the interim, but the Mets maintain that Dominic Smith is still the first baseman of the future. Add in the fact that the Mets are heavily intrigued by 24-year old Brandon Nimmo who also fits best as a corner outfielder, and it is clear the club may have added to the spot of the team that needed adding the least from a positional standpoint.
With Bruce making $14.5M in both 2019 and 2020, it is possible the Mets tie up nearly 10% of their payroll into an all-bat player who is either blocking one of their top young players or forcing them into a positional situation that is sub-optimal. Jay Bruce will probably finish 2018 as one of the Mets best offensive players, and with health issues constantly arising, it is likely the positional log-jam works itself out. With that said, you have to wonder if in years two and three of the deal if the Mets would have been better off signing someone like Adam Lind to a one-year deal in 2018 or spending Bruce’s money on the similar offensive player in Mike Moustakas to play a position they currently do not have a long-term answer at, while allowing Juan Lagares and his elite defense to handle CF full time.
The Mets second acquisition of the week was five-time all-star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Coming off a season in which he battled back injuries, Gonzalez was a really bad player in 2017, putting up a wRC+ of 69 and a fWAR of -1.1 over 71 games with the Dodgers. He was ultimately replaced by star rookie Cody Bellinger and traded in the offseason to Atlanta as a salary dump. The Braves immediately cut Gonzalez, freeing him up to be signed for the league minimum. The Mets pounced on the opportunity to pick up the two-time Silver Slugger and four-time Gold Glove winner.
It is tough to say what the Mets are getting in the 35-year old Gonzalez. If his back is not a problem, it is possible he bounces back to his 2016 OPS of .784, or somewhere thereabout. If he is not healthy, it is possible Gonzalez is done and has little to offer.
It appears the Mets plan on giving the job to Gonzalez at first base to open the season, however, with Dominic Smith in the fold he will certainly still be given a chance to impress in Spring Training. Ideally for the Mets, Smith will take a big leap and run away with the job, but in Gonzalez, the Mets have another dart to throw for essentially free. Assuming the club does not irrationally give playing time to Adrian Gonzalez because he is a veteran, and cut ties with him if he does not produce or becomes a clubhouse headache, this is a low-risk gamble for a team that will need surplus production from somewhere to win on a mid-market payroll.
While the hopes of a bounce-back season for the Mets rest heavily on the arms of their starting pitchers, the club ended 2017 with a lot of holes to fill on the roster. With a pair of left-handed bats added to the lineup, look for New York to address an infield spot and perhaps take a few low-cost gambles in the bullpen before heading to St. Lucie for Spring Training.