By Peter Valentino
The Mets entered spring training this month with nearly the same roster as last year. To some Mets fans, this comes as a pleasant surprise, assuming the team will be competitive in 2017. For others, there is a glaring problem that needs to be addressed, particularly in the outfield: Jay Bruce. So far, the outfielders consist of Bruce, Michael Conforto, Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson and Juan Lagares, who are all capable of starting at the MLB level, although Conforto did regress in 2016 from his 2015 start. Regardless, it seems as though the only certainty is that Cespedes will play left, while Granderson, who will turn 36 in March, will play center field while Bruce will play right. Regardless of the news that Jay Bruce has been taking grounders at first base, this outfield logjam has put all eyes on Bruce, a deadline pickup in 2016 who didn’t live up to the hype until the final week of the season. However, there’s something to be mentioned with that final week, when the Mets were in the race for the Wild Card and Bruce was on fire. This should be the Jay Bruce that people expect in 2017.
When Bruce came to the Mets at the deadline, there weren’t a whole lot of people who opposed the move. He was in the All-Star Game a couple of weeks before, and was, at the time, the National League leader in RBIs for a team that desperately needed it. The impact was clearly not immediate, as he held a batting average of .219 for his final two months with the Mets. On August 19th, the Mets were 60-62, and most of their lineup and rotation were hampered by injuries. Bruce’s batting average fell from .262 to .243 until the final week of the season, when he bumped himself back up to .250. The main reason the Mets made the playoffs last year was obviously not because of him, but because of the rise of young players like Robert Gsellman, Seth Lugo and T.J. Rivera. The surprise players and the lack of actual competition in the NL Wild Card race led to the Mets playing one more game in October. However, the Mets could not have clinched that Wild Card game in the final week without Bruce going .421 and coming up big in many situations.
So what can we expect out of Bruce in 2017? Well, with the plethora of outfielders, the team has to play the best and hottest players at any given point this season. This means if Bruce is not playing his best, he gets the bench while Granderson moves to right, Cespedes moves to center and Conforto goes to left. While he has been taking grounders at first base in place of Lucas Duda, Wilmer Flores or Neil Walker is expected to be the backup first baseman. The idea that Bruce will do better this year is purely based off of pressure. Essentially, he has to do better. This team is World Series-caliber, and its next man up if someone is underperforming. This puts the pressure on other players too, such as Michael Conforto and Travis d’Arnaud, who also underperformed in 2016. The only difference between these players and Bruce is that they are young and are given a bit of leeway. Not Bruce. As a veteran, he’s obligated to do well, especially when he will be in free agency after this year. If he wants to make bank going into his 30s, it’s now or never.