While the free agent market is still moving slower than ever, the Mets bring back a slugging outfield that may help them in more ways than one.
Ever since the Mets received outfielder Jay Bruce from the Reds, the 30-year-old slugger has been followed by constant trade rumors. Despite having a rough 2016 with a .219/.294/.391 batting line for New York, Bruce rebounded in 2017, hitting a respectable .256/.321/.520 with 29 home runs and 75 RBIs before being traded to the Cleveland Indians at the Deadline.
Bruce’s bat followed him to Cleveland where he played an instrumental role during the Indians’ 22-game winning streak that propelled them to another American League Central title and postseason appearance. Despite batting poorly in the ALDS against the New York Yankees, Bruce had an above-average season in the last year of his contract, making him a valuable free agent hitting the open market.
Although there are many established hitters still on the open market, Bruce opted to accept a three-year, $39 million deal to return to the Mets despite originally seeking a five-year, $80 million deal. Bruce’s deal is significant because it reveals much about the current free agent market for hitters and what we can expect over the rest of the offseason. Bruce’s deal also indicates the Mets priorities this offseason.
Here are some key observations:
Bruce Settled For a Lower-Than-Expected Deal
Bruce was never going to get the five-year, $80 million deal that he wanted. However, the deal he ended up accepting was less than half of what he was seeking. While it is possible that he could have held out for more money, and potentially play the Mets and the San Francisco Giants (who were the primary opposition to the Mets for Bruce’s services) against one another, Bruce decided not to extend the process and take the risks associated with holding out as Spring Training approaches.
As the current market is showing, high-end sluggers are not being valued as highly as they were in past years. Part of this problem is due to the power surge that has returned to the league. Over the past several years, the number of home runs per game has increased significantly:
As a result of the increasing home run rate, more players are finding themselves reaching the 20 home run threshold. In 2016, 111 players hit at least 20 home runs. In 2017, this number rose to 117, which represents a 5.4% increase over the previous year. As a result, sluggers such as Bruce struggle to separate themselves from the pack because there are numerous power-hitting sluggers who provide a steady offensive bat.
As the chart from ESPN shows, there are 16 players who hit free agency with at least 20 home runs:
Many of them remain unsigned as the start of Spring Training approaches. The inactivity on the free agent market is drawing closer to its breaking point; either the remaining sluggers will accept deals that are less than they feel their market value is, or they risk sitting out part of the season while waiting to be paid handsomely.
Besides Bruce to the Mets, only a handful of 20 home run hitters have found homes for 2018. The contracts these players have agreed to show how the free agent market is setting their value lower than where they feel their value is.
Out of the 16 free agent sluggers who hit the market this offseason, only six of them have signed. Excluding Bruce, here is a list of the remaining sluggers who have landed homes for 2018.
As the chart shows, no slugger has signed for more than three years. Teams are opting for smaller contracts in order to maximize value. As a result, although Bruce signed a deal significantly less than what he sought, he took the best available offer to him and realized that the Mets’ offer was where his true value was.
Therefore, Expect Sluggers To Agree To Smaller Deals
Bruce’s deal is a potential indicator that many of the top sluggers may have to agree to less than what they wanted. Eric Hosmer may not get an eight or nine-year deal. J.D. Martinez may have to settle for something less than the $200 million he and his agent Scott Boras are seeking. Rumors are that the Red Sox have offered Martinez a five-year, $125 million contract that he has yet to accept.
Sources also indicate that Hosmer has two seven-year deals on the table from the San Diego Padres and the Kansas City Royals. Based on how the market for sluggers is shaping up, Hosmer may be pressing his luck to fight for an eight or nine-year deal. Do not be surprised if Hosmer decides to eventually accept one of these deals. It remains highly unlikely that he would get more.
What Bruce’s Deal Means For The Mets
Bruce’s signing was a necessary one due to the Mets’ putrid offense. Bruce provides another outfield bat who can comfortably slot into the heart of the lineup. He is currently expected to bat fifth in the order behind Michael Conforto (when he returns in May from his injury) and Yoenis Cespedes. If Bruce can consistently provide 30 homeruns and 100 RBIs — like he did in 2017 — the Mets will be getting a bang for their buck.
Bruce’s signing also indicates that the Mets are prioritizing offense this offseason while counting on their starting pitchers to rebound. With the Mets hoping to contend in 2018, they continue to monitor the markets for Todd Frazier and Mike Moustakas while making minor upgrades to improve their depth. With David Wright unlikely to play again for the Mets, the Mets could use either Frazier or Moustakas, both of whom are dependable third basemen who can provide offense to help Bruce shoulder the load until Conforto and Cespedes return completely healthy.
As of now, the Mets starting lineup will probably look something like this:
A look at the projected lineup also shows how Bruce can fit into the Mets’ plans. The Bruce signing also serves as an insurance policy for first base if the newly signed Adrian Gonzalez cannot rediscover his 2016 form. Although he had an injury-plagued season last year, he is only three seasons removed from being an All-Star and only two removed from playing in 156 games and batting .285/.349/.435.
It is plausible that Gonzalez will start on Opening Day as the everyday first baseman for the Mets since Dominic Smith likely will start the season for Triple-A Las Vegas. Sandy Alderson has recently stated that Bruce is an option to play first base on occasion, so it is clear that Alderson is preparing for the potential worst-case scenario: Adrian Gonzalez is washed up, Smith fails to show the Mets that he can handle first base, or an injury forces Bruce to shift to first base while Juan Lagares or Brandon Nimmo takes his spot in the outfield.
If the Mets are fortunate enough to find Todd Frazier or Mike Moustakas in their price range, then they should go after them. The Mets are a potential playoff contender that, even with the Jay Bruce signing, still have numerous question marks that need to be answered before they can be seen as playoff contenders. Bruce’s return, however, moves the needle in the right direction.
(All statistics and information were provided by ESPN.com, Baseball-Reference.com, or FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.)
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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