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With Jay Bruce Coming to Town, Can the Mets Play Five Corner Outfielders at Once?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Let’s dispense with one misconception right at the start: There’s no rule against playing five corner outfielders at the same time.

With Yoenis Céspedes, Michael Conforto, Curtis Granderson, and Alejandro De Aza already under their employ, that must be what the Mets were after when they traded two minor leaguers for Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce.

The big return for the Reds is second baseman Dilson Herrera, who came to New York in the Marlon Byrd deal back in 2013, and debuted a year later, racking up a .215/.308/.383 line in 169 plate appearances between 2014 and 2015. Herrera, who was Baseball Prospectus’s no. 82 prospect before the 2015 season, has since exhausted his rookie eligibility, but he’s still only 22, and appeared to be the heir presumptive to the Mets’ second base job if/when Neil Walker leaves via free agency this coming offseason. Herrera was also one of the main pieces in a rumored deal that would have brought Jonathan Lucroy to New York. In addition to Herrera, the Mets gave up 19-year-old left-hander Max Wotell, who’s the no. 16 prospect in the system, according to MLB Pipeline. That makes this a good piece of business for the Reds.

Bruce is easy to mock because of his bad defensive numbers and reputation as an “RBI guy.” He might be leading the league in RBI, but we’ve known for more than a decade that RBI is a heavily context-dependent stat that doesn’t tell you very much about a player. However, Bruce is still only 29, he’s got a reasonable $13 million team option for 2017, he’s slugging .559, and in this day and age, a .316 OBP isn’t as bad as it looks. (The big league average is only .321.) Overall, Bruce is a decent player; the glove isn’t so bad that it completely negates the value of his bat. He’d be a useful upgrade at the left field position for a team like the Red Sox or Indians or Giants — perhaps even at the cost of a young player of Herrera’s quality.

What makes this deal hilarious is not that the Mets gave up too much; it’s that there might not be a team in baseball less suited to accommodate Bruce. They’re already so overloaded in the outfield corners that they’re playing Conforto, who’s built like a run-stopping middle linebacker, in center field. Is Bruce going to move to first base, where he’s played 26 innings in his big league career?

In other words, the Mets just traded a lot for a corner outfielder who’s not as good as Conforto, Céspedes, or Granderson. If Bruce isn’t a rental, he’ll cost them $13 million in 2017. That shouldn’t be an undue financial burden to a team in New York that just won the pennant, but the Wilpons are still reeling from the money they lost to Bernie Madoff, and instead of getting back on their feet by selling their potentially billion-dollar asset to someone with enough liquid assets to buy a clue, they’re running the Mets like Jeffrey Loria’s Montreal Expos and pocketing every cent they can. So, is a lefty bench bat really the best place to spend their limited financial resources?

Of course, one way the Mets could find themselves with an extra corner outfield spot and $23.75 million next year is if Yoenis Céspedes opts out of his contract and signs somewhere else. If you think this deal is unpopular now, imagine if it lays the groundwork for Céspedes to leave. Even then, there’s no reason to think Conforto and Granderson wouldn’t be better than Bruce in the corners anyway. This trade is a rarity in the modern game: There’s no real justification for one of the participants to make it. But after all, the Mets are full of surprises.