Trade winds hit doldrums for Mets and Bruce
In another time, in another circumstance, Jay Bruce would no longer be with the Mets. It wasn’t that long ago when his 29 home runs — which ranks third in the National League — would have kept general manager Sandy Alderson scrambling for his cell phone charger.
A free agent at season’s end, the 30-year-old Bruce fit the mold of the classic rental player at the non-waiver trade deadline, an ideal candidate for the non-contending Mets to flip for prospects.
Then the deadline came and went, and Bruce stayed put. While a few rival clubs called, none pushed for a deal. Said one team official: “Zero bites.”
With that, Bruce found himself processing the fallout of a quickly changing landscape. It’s one in which the price for rental players has cratered while the prospects required to acquire them are protected like stacks of gold bullion.
For Bruce, who is approaching free agency for the first time in his career, questions about the evolving nature of value are particularly relevant. The answers will shape his future, one that could include a long-term tenure with the Mets.
It would be an improbable twist. After all, the Mets spent much of the offseason trying to trade him away. But making a run at retaining Bruce is a possibility that sources say team officials increasingly have considered.
“You would like to think that someone can use the type of offense that I offer,” Bruce said this past week after spending much of the trade deadline hiking to a fly fishing spot. “But like I said, it is more complex than that. You have to fit on a team.”
A SOFT MARKET
So how did a three-time All-Star in the midst of a career year attract so little trade interest that the non-contending team that employs him couldn’t find a deal?
The answer begins with the market. As the Mets prepared for the deadline, they anticipated having trouble moving Bruce. Barring an injury that would create a sudden need, the outlook was clear. Few contenders needed to fill a glaring hole in a corner outfield spot.
Those that did gravitated toward the top option, J.D. Martinez, who ultimately was traded by the Tigers to the Diamondbacks ahead of the deadline.
The teams that did approach the Mets saw Bruce as an imperfect fit, or in some cases redundant, a power hitter at a time when homers have spiked. He was regarded as only a marginal upgrade. Those beliefs, a team official said, were reflected in the prices they were willing to pay.
Rival executives questioned how much Bruce’s market was diminished by the perceived nature of his value. His worth is rooted primarily in hitting for power at a time when teams generally have placed more of an emphasis on speed and defense.
Bruce’s work in rightfield this season has been rated highly by defensive runs saved (plus-6), but he often is labeled by talent evaluators as lumbering and unathletic. It’s a characterization he disputes.
“I’m not sitting here saying that I’m Jason Heyward or Yasiel Puig or Mookie Betts or anything like that,” he said. “But that’s a bit of a broad stroke, a lazy approach to judging me as a defender.”
Another rival executive suggested an alternate theory for Bruce’s dampened market. He described a landscape in which teams in the race generally have tried to be more discerning about adding players more likely to produce in the postseason. When viewed from that prism, the executive said, Bruce’s above-average power might have been negated by his below-average contact rate.
Said one official: “Most teams have players of that quality and are looking for more at the deadline.”
PREVIEW OF FREE AGENCY?
Whatever the various factors, they have all in some way conspired to keep Bruce in Queens, perhaps for the long haul.
“Obviously, being a desired piece would be something you do take pride in,” Bruce said. “But I don’t allow myself to fall for the ‘people don’t want me’ bit. I think it’s circumstantial.”
Bruce still could get traded during this month’s waiver period. He already has cleared waivers and is owed about $4 million, not a figure that would necessarily preclude a deal. Playing more first base, as he’s done of late, also might help lead to a deal.
But just as it was leading up to the deadline, no contender has a clear-cut need.
That leaves Bruce to wait and wonder if the trade deadline could be a preview of free agency. It’s also a relevant question for the Mets, who are considering retaining Bruce as they embark on what they hope is a rapid retooling.
At season’s end, the Mets will have more than $50 million coming off the books.
Catcher Travis d’Arnaud has progressed enough this season to remain a part of the plans moving forward, a source said. But the Mets need help in the outfield and at third base.
The free-agent class includes centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and third baseman Mike Moustakas. On the surface, both appear to be fits at positions of need.
And of course, there’s Bruce, whose career has played out beneath a bubble of uncertainty. Since 2015, his name has been a fixture in trade rumors.
Last winter, after struggling badly following his acquisition from the Reds last summer, he assumed he was headed for another destination. The Mets shopped him, found no takers and watched him bounce back to become a force this season. Bruce’s .852 OPS is second on the team only to Michael Conforto.
“I think he’s really comfortable,” manager Terry Collins said. “I think he’s really driven to put up numbers obviously going into his walk year.”
While perceptions about Bruce’s defense may give other clubs pause, it likely would be less of an issue for the the Mets. Under Alderson, they repeatedly have made compromises on defense in the name of more offense. And last week, he offered no indication that his philosophy will change anytime soon.
During a conference call on the day of the trade deadline, Alderson said he has been been comfortable enough with Conforto’s play in the field to consider him an option going forward in centerfield. The presence of former Gold Glover Juan Lagares as a defensive replacement makes the trade-off more feasible.
Alderson’s declaration opens up the Mets’ choices in the outfield to include those limited to the corners, those who typically hit for more power, players such as Bruce, who is on pace to surpass his career high of 34 homers in 2012.
Playing for a contender ranks among Bruce’s top priorities. And with the addition of AJ Ramos at the deadline — a preemptive move designed to pay off next year — the Mets signaled their intent to compete.
“That’s definitely something I can envision,” Bruce said of a reunion with the Mets. “I do believe that it’s in the plans of the front office and the organization to contend.”
But Bruce has long anticipated reaching free agency. It’s why even if the Mets extend a qualifying offer at season’s end, Bruce appears unlikely to accept it.
After years of living with uncertainty, Bruce wants a semblance of the stability he enjoyed as he grew into an All-Star with the Reds. He plans to be hands-on when he navigates the changing tides of free-agent waters.
“I like to know, I like to be involved,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grasp on how the market is viewed and how the numbers are kind of valued and what value is these days. It’s a little more complex than it used to be. But I enjoy it.”