Last season, it took the Mets trading for Cespedes to get on a roll. Can Bruce overcome his shortcomings to be that lightning this year?
For the second straight season, the New York Mets have acquired a power hitting outfielder at the trade deadline. This time around, Jay Bruce will be coming to New York in exchange for 22-year-old Dilson Herrera and 19-year-old Max Wotell.
There’s no question the Mets needed to acquire another bat. Entering Monday they ranked last in the National League in batting average (.237), 13th in the NL in runs per game (3.7), last in baseball in batting with runners in scoring position (.206), and are even worse with two outs and runners in scoring position (.172). While those sound less like batting ineptitude and more like a bit of unlucky sequencing, there’s no doubt the Mets needed to add a major offensive piece.
Lineup depth is the major key in this trade. Consider that in their past 10 games a combination of James Loney (five), Wilmer Flores (three), and Neil Walker (two) have manned the cleanup spot in the lineup. For reference, here are the players that most frequently man the fourth spot among NL playoff contenders: Anthony Rizzo, Buster Posey, Adrian Gonzalez, Stephen Piscotty, Daniel Murphy, and Giancarlo Stanton — it’s obvious where James Loney and Wilmer Flores rank in this conglomerate. Once Cespedes is fully healthy, Bruce will be slotting right behind him in the lineup.
Part of the problem for the Mets has been their injuries. Lucas Duda was supposed to be the Mets’ cleanup hitter this season, but a stress fracture in his lower back has kept him away from the diamond since May 23rd. A healthy David Wright would have manned the two spot, lengthening the lineup by moving Asdrubal Cabrera further down, but ‘healthy’ just isn’t in Wright’s vocabulary at this point in his career. More recent injuries to the aforementioned Cabrera, Jose Reyes, and Juan Lagares have only weakened the Mets depth. Even Cespedes has been in and out of the lineup with leg injuries.
Until the Mets get healthier, Bruce will be expected to play a major role in keeping the offense afloat. To a point, he was doing that in Cincinnati before being traded. He is the first player in MLB history to be traded while leading his league in RBIs. Of course, RBIs only tell you so much about a player; it’s how he’s been driving them home that has been impressive.
Jay Bruce 2016 home run heat map. Credit: Baseball Savant.
Bruce is only nine homers away from tying his career high (34) set in 2012. And while he hits the majority of his long balls to the pull side, he has made strides hitting for power up the middle. In fact, he has hit the ball up the middle on 37.4% of batted balls — a career high and fourth among National League batters with at least 20 home runs. He’s also currently setting career highs with a .295 isolated slugging (ISO) and 125 wRC+.
Nobody is questioning Bruce’s ability at the plate. But despite his offensive renaissance this season, he still has an fWAR under 1.0. His declining defense — and more importantly him being restricted to right field — makes the fit less than ideal. The Mets already have an everyday right fielder in Curtis Granderson. But with Bruce pigeonholed in right, Granderson suddenly became a man out of position. Cespedes seems set in left for the remainder of the season, and the Mets are without a true center fielder on the roster. Lagares was supposed to be that platoon partner, but he’s injured. Throw in Michael Conforto, Brandon Nimmo, and Alejandro De Aza to the equation and that’s six corner outfielders for two slots and a starting gig in center field.
Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
With the injuries the Mets have, depth is certainly an asset. But Conforto is an average fielder at best, and even then the Mets will want to keep Granderson’s bat in the lineup. Playing in center field isn’t the ideal scenario for the 35-year-old, and his defensive metrics (-8.0 UZR, -4 DRS) certainly leave much to be desired.
But the lack of positional fit makes Bruce an even more sensible choice for the Mets. This is the same team that played Daniel Murphy at second base for years, transitioned Reyes to third base after signing him, and has played Flores at all four infield positions around the diamond. Cespedes, not a natural center fielder, has logged nearly 500 innings at the position this season. The Mets have shown a propensity to play players out of position (or at least out of their comfort areas) if it means adding more offense to the lineup. Adding Jay Bruce may mean moving Granderson to center, but Bruce’s offense should more than make up for that.
Then comes the long term fit. To acquire Bruce, the Mets gave up the highly touted Herrera. At one point, Herrera was the designated second baseman of the future, poised to replace Neil Walker after this season. But with other quality middle infield options in the upper systems — Matt Reynolds, Gavin Cecchini, and Amed Rosario — Herrera was expendable. In return, the Mets gained a power bat that has a relatively cost-effective club option for next season. With Cespedes able to opt out of his current deal at the end of the season, having Bruce is the sort of insurance option that changes the nature of potential negotiations. Instead of being absolutely desperate for an outfield power bat, the Mets will at least have some sort of internal option to fall back on.
Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
So while Jay Bruce may not be the perfect fit for the Mets current outfield situation, he brings a much needed bat to a lineup that has struggled to hit and produce runs. He’s setting career highs with his improved up-the-middle approach, leading to his best offensive season. Center field defense may become a liability for the ballclub, but the Mets are betting that the marginal benefits on offense will outweigh the marginal costs on defense.
Only time will tell if this gamble will help the Mets improve on their putrid hitting with runners in scoring position. If so, it may help their chances for a wild-card spot over the Marlins and Cardinals. Only time will tell, but the Mets are hoping for a second straight season of deadline lightning in a bottle.
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