MLB Hot Stove: Mets Sign Jay Bruce, Pass on Jason Kipnis

In a signing that is fair for both sides, the Mets signed Jay Bruce to a 3-year, $39 million deal on Wednesday, which hopefully will start stirring some life into this quiet off-season.

Bruce had a rebound season in 2017, when he hit .254/.324/.508 (115 OPS+) in 617 plate appearances for the Mets and Indians.  He contributed 36 home runs and 101 runs batted in, and hit a big home run in the epic Game 2 comeback for the Indians in the American League Divisional Series.

Players like Bruce have been devalued in the market over the past few years.  With home runs up across baseball, his big power is not unique.  He doesn’t carry a great defensive reputation (and the Mets’ outfield as a whole figures to be below average defensively), so his bat is what will ultimately carry him.

If his 2017 season is going to be the norm for him over the next three seasons, this is a solid deal for the Mets.  Bruce is coming off of a solid year, and isn’t even getting a pay raise over his 2016 salary.    This just shows you where the market is at the moment.  Bruce likely wanted to cash in on a solid offensive season, but ended up settling for what he already had.   Using Fangraphs’ Value metric, Bruce was worth $21.3 million in 2017.   It was not insane for him to ask for a deal in the 5-year, $80M+ range.   In today’s game, however, teams just don’t value his skill set enough to bid high on him.

The potential downside to this deal is that Bruce doesn’t draw many walks, so when he doesn’t hit for some average, his numbers can become ugly in a hurry.   In the not-so-distant past (2014-2015), he hit a combined .222/.288/.406 (90 OPS+) with 44 home runs in 294 games.   If that Jay Bruce were to reappear, this deal will go down the path of Jason Bay.

Bruce flyball rate spiked to 46.7% in 2017, his highest rate since 2011.    The Mets are counting on more of that, as a healthy outfield of Yoenis CespedesMichael Conforto-Jay Bruce may be clunky with the gloves, but may also hit 75-80+ home runs in 2018.     I don’t have a ZiPS projection on Jay Bruce, but Cespedes and Conforto are projected to hit 52 home runs in 2018, and it isn’t hard to imagine Bruce adding 25-30 of his own to that total.   Health is important, and projections do not equate to guarantees.    It should be noted that Juan Lagares gives the team some defensive balance in the outfield with his well-above average glove in center field.  With Conforto still recovering and Cespedes in need of at least one trip to the disabled list annually, Lagares figures to receive plenty of playing time in center field in 2018, which will help ease the pain of their poor defensive outfield.   Their outfield depth also includes Brandon Nimmo, who flashed some plate discipline in his 69-game stint in 2017.   I don’t see Nimmo as an everyday outfielder, but he can easily find a niche as a solid reserve at the MLB level.

Overall Take:   There isn’t much to dislike about this move.  He is a legitimate power threat coming off a solid season, and the Mets didn’t even need to give him a raise.  Sign me up for these kinds of transactions.

In other Mets’ news today, it was reported that the Mets were close to making a deal for infielder Jason Kipnis of the Indians before management turned it down due to the money implications.

Kipnis will turn 31 early on in the 2018 season, and is coming off a rather abysmal, injury-plagued season where he hit .232/.291/.414 in 373 plate appearances.   His contract can easily be viewed as not team-friendly, as he is slated to make over $28 million over the next two seasons (with a team option in 2020).   This makes sense, right?  The Mets’ farm system is not very good, so they need to get creative in making deals.  Kipnis is only available to them for very little because the Indians want to dump the salary, because he wasn’t very good in 2017.   If Kipnis was still playing at his 2015 All-Star Level (or even his very good 2016 level), his contract would be seen as a bargain, and the Mets would have zero chance at acquiring him.

If I was a Mets’ fan, I wouldn’t care about missing out on Kipnis.  If his 2017 season is a sign of things to come, you may have dodged a bullet.  My bigger concern involves the money.  Why sign Bruce in an effort to prove you are trying if you are not willing to spend as much money as (reasonably) necessary to improve the team for 2018?   It doesn’t appear this was a talent evaluation issue, where the front office determined that Kipnis wasn’t worth the money still left on his deal.  This appears to be an ownership issue, where they were unwilling to take on the money regardless of the front office recommendation.

If the Mets go out and sign another free agent at the cost of Kipnis’ deal, it would at least erase some fears that the team simply signed Bruce to make a portion of their fan base happy.   The “middle of the road” strategy of signing one free agent and thinking everything else will work out is not likely to work, unless their “big five” starters all come back healthy and dominant, which seems like a long shot.

Overall Take:  Kipnis would be the ultimate “buy low” type of player.  The problem is that I happen to agree that the contract is a bit expensive for a player you are hoping rebounds back to his previous levels.   My biggest concern isn’t Kipnis.  It is the fact that ownership appeared to override the front office based on the money left on the deal alone.   I wonder who leaked this report, because all it does is show that the front office and the ownership are not on the same page.  If ownership didn’t want Kipnis’ contract, why not tell the front office to stop pursuing him?   It is a rather perplexing situation.




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