Consider the current payrolls of two teams:
Team Payroll MLB Rank
Team A $133.7M 9
Team B $133.3M 10
You, being a reader of some intellectual attainment, have probably divined that one of these teams is the New York Mets. That would be Team A. Team B is the Seattle Mariners. As we enter 2017, just under eight years after Bernie Madoff’s guilty plea, the Mets still have the payroll of a team playing the 18th-largest city in America; four of NYC’s five boroughs have more people.
Mets’ GM Sandy Alderson has assembled a team that is essentially the anti-Cubs: the Mets’ core is their young, cost-controlled pitching staff, which was the best in the majors last year according to FIP-. Supporting the staff is a cast of position players that produce roughly MLB-average offense (16th last year in wRC+) and defense (15th in UZR/150). The Mets payroll is upside-down, heavily invested in the modestly effective position players, while the outstanding pitchers mostly throw for food. The most expensive pitcher on their roster is Addison Reed, at $7.75M. At Mets prices, for the coming year, that would buy you around one-third of Yoenis Cespedes or David Wright.
The Alderson formula has produced three years of 80+ win teams from 2014-2016 (82, 89, and 87, according to Pythagoras). But clouds are gathering. Seven of the eight starting position players on opening day will be at least 30 years old. Even the young pitching is less young than you might think. Matt Harvey will be 28, and Jacob deGrom already is. The pitchers’ long war with soft tissue has intensified: After last season, Steven Matz finally donated his bone spurs to science, but worryingly is planning to throw slower in 2017. Perhaps necessity will beget virtue, but Matz’ room for error may decline with his average velo. Noah Syndergaard still has his bone spurs, and Zack Wheeler may never start another major-league game. And so on.
Which brings us to today’s topic, which is focused on the Mets’ peculiar outfield, and their especially peculiar decision to give Jay Bruce most of the starts in right. The Mets’ failure to move Bruce in the offseason has been well-chronicled. Bruce had seemed to get his career back on track with 402 blistering plate appearances with the Reds in 2016, and the Mets jumped at the chance to get him in exchange for two pieces deemed expendable (Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell). Bruce cratered in New York, posting the second-worst ISO and wOBA of his career (if you were to consider his time in New York to be a separate season). After that performance, Met fans would have traded Bruce for a traffic jam in Fort Lee, but Alderson wanted more.
You can see Alderson’s logic: Having traded two prospects away (Herrera has exceeded his rookie eligibility, but he’s still only 22), Alderson now wanted two prospects back. As the Forbes article linked above noted, this misread the market. But it also misread Jay Bruce. In 2016, Bruce’s combined wRC+ was 111, good for 14th in the majors out of 21 right-field qualifiers. Bruce’s career wRC+ is 107 — so, far from being an anomaly, last year taken as a whole was simply Jay being Jay. Alderson paid for those 402 tantalizing plate appearances with the Reds in 2016, rather than considering Bruce’s entire body of work. Right field is an offensive position, and Bruce’s offensive contributions are modest. On a playoff team, he’s probably better suited to a bench role.
Steamer projects Bruce to regress to a wRC+ of 97 this year, while the man Bruce will effectively bump from the lineup, Michael Conforto, is projected to achieve 113. It’s possible the Mets’ internal projection system gives Bruce a much better prognosis; it’s likely the other 29 teams’ systems don’t think much of Bruce, or he wouldn’t still be a Met. Steamer thinks Conforto is worth about 0.7 wins more than Bruce, with Bruce getting over 100 more plate appearances. Giving Conforto the everyday role (or at least the everyday role against northpaws) and reducing Bruce’s playing time could be worth a win or so to the Mets.
How important is that win? Extremely, it would seem. As noted above, the Mets have assembled a team capable of getting into the playoffs, but not likely to overwhelm the competition. In this sense the Mets aren’t like the Cubs at all; the Cubs were assembled to crush their competition in the regular season, while the Mets plan is to squeeze into the playoffs and then say a number of Hail Marys that can only be expressed in scientific notation. The Cubs could have afforded to start Jay Bruce in right last year, and in fact they started someone worse (offensively, at least) and still broke a century-old curse. The Phillies could afford to start Jay Bruce in right in 2017 (and indeed wanted him, though not at Alderson’s price), because wins in 2017 will likely mean little to them. For a team like the Phillies, with some money to spend and no plans to win this year, Bruce would be useful cannon fodder — someone to run out there most days who allows them to keep their more valuable prospects in the minors.
The Mets are in a far different position than either of these teams, neither certain to dominate nor certain to fold. FanGraphs projects the Mets to win 83 games this year, which would put them just outside the second wild-card spot. I think that exact total may be a little pessimistic, but focus on their overall position in the league rather than the specific number. Four teams are projected to have between 82 and 88 wins (the Mets, Cards, Pirates, and Giants); it is fairly easy to imagine any two of them being the wild cards.
Moreover, the Mets are in win-now mode. As noted above, this is an old roster, and there’s not a lot of help on the way. The Mets have just two players in MLB’s top 100 prospects, though one of them is Amed Rosario, who could solve the Mets’ shortstop problems for a decade. With a Seattle-size payroll, and two long-term contracts (Cespedes and Wright) destined to get ever more albatrossy as the months tick by, the Mets need to scrape for every win they can now. The fragility of the Mets’ starters, who are unquestionably the team’s strength, gives the task further urgency.
Seen in this light, the decision to play Bruce seems to be an unforced error. The Mets have three options here:
- Use Bruce as a bench player: This fits Bruce’s current skills. He can be an effective left-handed pinch-hitter, and play three corner spots in a pinch. It is admittedly difficult to pay a player $13M to spit seeds for six innings, but as noted above, the Mets need to win right away, and Bruce can help them do that.
- Pay some other team to make Bruce go away: The Mets asking price for Bruce over the winter was too high: They wanted prospects in exchange for paying none of his salary, and Alderson now knows that was unrealistic. But the Mets might be able to get another franchise to take perhaps half of his salary in exchange for a low-A player with some upside; high-velocity relievers with arm or control problems are sometimes the currency of exchange in trades like this. And it’s difficult to believe that the relatively cash-strapped Mets could find no good use for $7M.
- Start Bruce to enhance his trade value: This seems to be what Alderson has in mind: hope that Bruce gets hot like he did last year, and then flip him for at least the two prospects that it cost to get him in the first place. This kind of stock-market baseball makes sense only if the wins don’t matter, but every win will matter for the Mets this year.
The Mets have an interesting team. A lot of people would actually like them if they weren’t the New York Mets. In piloting this intriguing but surprisingly cost-constrained franchise, the usually sure-handed Alderson shouldn’t compound his initial error in acquiring Bruce by misusing him now that he’s here.