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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Mets’ signing of Jay Bruce a rare move in bear market for free agents

Slugger spouts party line for fiscally conservative Mets, who still have more moves they need to make.

The Mets re-introduce outfielder Jay Bruce, who signed

The Mets re-introduce outfielder Jay Bruce, who signed a three-year contract, at a news conference at Citi Field on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

A grateful Jay Bruce immediately began earning his $39 million Wednesday by taking on the role of the Mets’ loudest cheerleader. With Fred and Jeff Wilpon seated in the front row for the re-introductory news conference, Bruce gushed about returning to Flushing for “unfinished business” and talked about how the Mets are a “healthy season away from being right in the thick of it.”

We didn’t expect anything less. With the ink yet to dry on his contract, one of the few completed by any club during this frosty winter for free agents, Bruce wasn’t going to stand at the podium and implore the Wilpons to sign Mike Moustakas and trade for Josh Harrison. He wouldn’t even cop to recruiting his former Reds teammate, Todd Frazier, who at this time of plummeting prices will have to settle for a spring-training invite somewhere.

To borrow a thought from Scott Boras, this whole offseason has been like shopping in the frozen-foods section. It’s a big reason why Bruce was again wearing his old No. 19 on a snowy January afternoon at Citi Field. For weeks now, this market has been tilting in the Mets’ direction, much to the horror of the Players Association. For a team that defiantly chooses to operate in tight financial margins — regardless of its zip code — the longer this game of musical chairs drags out, the better, and that includes trade options as well.

Sandy Alderson was positively beaming at Bruce’s welcome-back party, and for good reason. Always one for a bear market, Alderson’s cautious approach seems to have been adopted by the other 29 teams — with rare exceptions — who have chosen to wait out each other, holding tight to their young prospects and cash with the idea of acquiring outside talent on their own terms.

The Mets have tacked on roughly $16 million worth of free agents to the 2018 payroll, including $10 million for Bruce and $5.5 for reliever Anthony Swarzak in backloaded deals to go with the MLB minimum for Adrian Gonzalez. Incredibly, that makes Alderson among the most active GMs this winter, and also gives him the flexibility to secure a few more needs before spring training opens in just over three weeks.

Boras’ clients are still available — including Moustakas, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and Jake Arrieta — and he usually convinces them to stay strong. But the others? Such as Frazier, Eduardo Nuñez and Neil Walker, to name a few? They could get jittery, just as Bruce must have been before jumping at the Mets’ three-year offer, well short of the five he was shooting for in his first bite at free agency.

“It’s great to have patience,” Alderson said. “But you’ve got to have the confidence to move when it’s appropriate.”

That’s how he described the signing of Bruce, but he should heed his own advice in the days ahead, with plenty of other targets already within reach. If Alderson truly believes that Brandon Nimmo’s five years of team control ultimately are worth more than one year (and $14.5 million) of a 31-year-old Andrew McCutchen to the ’18 Mets, fine. Alderson was effusive Wednesday in his praise of Nimmo (.800 OPS) and sees him as coveted around the league for his plate discipline. He’s also one of the few chips Alderson possesses, and at the sinking rate for fire-sale players, the Mets think it’s possible they can get a Harrison for different pieces in the system.

Of course, other teams can pounce at any moment, too. There’s a risk watching for the prices to bottom out. But with so many options, losing the versatile Harrison could mean a pivot to Frazier or Walker or Nuñez or even Jose Reyes, whose return grows more likely as January winds down. Alderson reiterated his preference to go the free-agent route, but if a trade becomes palatable, he’s not closing that door. The Mets still could use another player or two, and at this late date, they have no excuses for not taking advantage of this unusual opportunity.

“I wouldn’t say we’re committed to it,” Alderson said, smiling. “But we come to work every day.”

And this year, each passing day in this depressed market gives the much-maligned Mets a chance to change the narrative, by upgrading what needs to be improved, without unreasonable stretching of their payroll parameters. That’s not a lot to ask, and will do way more for the Mets than Bruce’s obligatory pep rally.

Sandy Alderson’s cautious approach has been mimicked by his MLB brethren, who have been reluctant to hand out big-money, long-term deals in the 2017-18 offseason. The largest free-agent contracts agreed to:

PlayerYears Contract $Team

Carlos Santana 3$60MPhillies

Wade Davis3$52MRockies

Jay Bruce3$39MMets

Tyler Chatwood3$38MCubs

Zack Cozart3$38MAngels

Mike Minor3$28MRangers

Bryan Shaw3$27MRockies

Jake McGee3$27MRockies

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