PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- We can confirm that Jay Bruce was indeed wearing a Mets cap and T-shirt when he sat behind a microphone Thursday morning at Tradition Field.
What nobody knows, however, is how long Bruce will be sporting that blue-and-orange outfit.
Sure, he made it through the offseason. And the Mets have Bruce penciled in to be the starting rightfielder. But with a little more than six weeks to go before Opening Day, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be standing beneath the Coca-Cola Corner on April 3.
That’s too much time, and the Mets still have too many outfielders, especially with Terry Collins already raving about what he’s seen from Michael Conforto, a young, talented player eager to prove he belongs in the majors — not back at Triple-A Las Vegas.
Deep down, Bruce knows this. He said Thursday that he was well aware of the trade chatter involving him this offseason, but that was all stuff beyond his control. Other than his $13-million option getting picked up in November — as a hedge against the possibility of the Mets not signing Yoenis Cespedes — Bruce said he didn’t hear from the team.
As long as he wasn’t told differently, he planned on showing up in Port St. Lucie this week. And Thursday, there he was.
“You can get traded at any time,” Bruce said. “It is part of the game and it’s part of the business and I know that every team is trying to do whatever they can to make themselves better, so we’ll see. My job is to play baseball. I refuse to be a distraction in the clubhouse. That’s definitely not going to happen. I’m here and I’m happy to be here. I’ll be here until I’m not.”
Bruce can’t play it any other way. He sees what the outfield landscape looks like. As much as the Mets tried to deal him this offseason, Curtis Granderson kept popping up as the more tradeable of the two, and they weren’t prepared to move a player who is lined up to be their starting centerfielder. So now the Mets and Bruce are stuck with each other, and like any other uncomfortable pairing, both sides hope to make the best of it.
And if this relationship does make it past Opening Day, Bruce is going to have to be a heck of a lot closer to Cincinnati Jay from the first four months of last season than the Flushing version that was swamped by Citi Field boos after the trade deadline. The latter would result not only in a backlash from the fans but probably the loss of his job.
Bruce had 25 home runs and 80 RBIs through 97 games with the Reds, then got off to a dreadful start with the Mets that included a 21-game homeless streak and batting .178 (13-for-73) with a .233 slugging percentage during that span.
“You look at his numbers, he’s a much better player than what he showed the first month that he was here,” Collins said. “I just think he’s going to come in, he’s been part of the team, he knows everybody now. I think he’ll relax and we’re going to see what we thought we were going to get.”
That’s certainly possible. Bruce didn’t want to use it as an excuse, but switching teams and trying to get comfortable in New York, with the Mets pushing hard for a playoff spot, is not the easiest transition. Particularly for a player who had spent his entire 8 1⁄2-year career in a mid-market city like Cincy, with a baseball team that hadn’t been over .500 in three seasons.
It’s a significant adjustment, and maybe, with a few months to plan ahead, Bruce was able to show up at Tradition Field with a clearer head. We’re not sure if these less frantic circumstances will help reverse his tailspin from last year, but it can’t hurt.
“I’m a routine-oriented guy, so not having a home base, not having my family here, was not the most ideal situation,” said Bruce, who will turn 30 on Opening Day. “But that’s not an excuse. I’m a professional. My job is to play baseball and to play well. I didn’t do that.”
As of now, right this minute, it appears as though Bruce might get a second chance with the Mets, to turn the boos to “Bruuuuuuce!” chants at Citi this season. Or not.
“I’m definitely of the mindset these days, and at this point, that nothing is done until it’s done,” Bruce said. “So here I am.”