Even as some teams prepare to enter expensive long-term entanglements with free agents, cautionary tales abound. Case in point: On Wednesday, the Mets released Jason Bay after negotiating an early end to the four-year, $66 million contract he signed in December 2009 — a deal that still had one year remaining. The team will save a bit of money, free up a roster spot, and avoid further distraction that can come with marginalizing a highly-paid player, while he can search for a new team with which he can attempt to revive his flagging career.
Bay didn't look like a particularly bad bet when the Mets signed him. In his age-30 season with the Red Sox in 2009, he had hit .267/.384/.537 with 36 homers, 94 walks and 119 RBIs, a season that was worth 5.9 Wins Above Replacement Player and wasn't out of context with his recent production. Though he had passed through the hands of the Expos, Mets and Padres before establishing himself at the major league level with the Pirates, from 2004-2009 he had hit .280/.375/.519, averaging 30 homers, 99 RBIs and 4.6 WARP. Concerns about his lackluster defense in the outfield (which other metrics liked less than Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average) as well as the standard caveats about players on the wrong side of 30 certainly applied, but nothing suggested his collapse was imminent.
Alas, he never came close to delivering any kind of value for the Mets, much to the dismay of their front office and fans. In three seasons during which he averaged just 96 games and never played in more than 123 due to injuries, he hit just .234/.318/.369, with an average of nine homers, 41 RBIs and 0.4 WARP. The injuries were a significant part of the problem; he sustained a whiplash-induced concussion after running into an outfield wall on July 23, 2010, one the Mets failed to identify until after he had played for two more days and flown with the team — handling that rightly drew criticism. The Mets were initially hopeful he would miss only a few days, but he didn't play again all season. He missed four weeks the following year with an intercostal strain, and in 2012 was limited to just 70 games due to a broken rib and yet another wall-induced concussion, batting just .165/.237/.299 with eight homers.
Yet injuries don't tell the entirety of Bay's Big Apple tenure. Nor does the offense-suppressing environment of Citi Field, which was particularly hard on righthanded hitters, reducing batting average by six percent and home runs by 22 percent from 2009-2011 according to The Bill James Handbook 2012. Even before his 2010 concussion, Bay batted just .259/.347/.402 with six homers, numbers that break down to a respectable .277/.371/.459 line at home, but an anemic .243/.326/.354 line on the road. That puzzling trend held true across the three-year period, with his road OPS 116 points lower than his home OPS. Whether he was tinkering with his swing too much, developing bad habits from adapting to Citi or playing through other undisclosed injuries is an open question, but the bottom line is that the Mets didn't get anywhere near the player they though they were getting.
Bay had $21 million coming to him via a $16 million 2013 salary, a $2 million installment of his signing bonus, and a $3 million buyout of his 2014 club option, which would have been for $17 million. His option would have vested had he gotten 600 plate appearances in the coming season, something he hasn't managed since 2009. Some of the $21 million will be deferred, giving the Mets additional flexibility with their payroll. Bay saves money with regards to New York taxes and gets unhindered free agency via which he can make more than the major league minimum salary of $450,000 that he'd get if the Mets had simply released him with his current deal intact and another team had picked him up.
This kind of move isn't unprecedented. Two cases come to mind immediately, one of which will be all-too-familiar to Mets fans. In January 2000, the Mets released Bobby Bonilla, who was coming off a year in which he had hit a Bay-like .160/.277/.303 in 60 games, and was headed into his age-37 season. Rather than pay him the $5.9 million he was due, they struck a deal via which Bonilla's salary would be deferred 12 years and then would pay out in 25 annual installments of $1,193,248.20 every year from 2011 through 2035, a total take of $29.8 million.
In January 2009, the Dodgers released Andruw Jones, who had hit .158/.256/.249 — detecting a trend yet? — in 75 games in the first year of a two-year, $36 million deal, and who was headed into his age-32 season. Los Angeles deferred $12 million of the $21.1 million he had remaining, spreading out the payments over six years (2009-2014). While Bonilla played just two more seasons, only one of which was remotely productive, Jones has had more success as an inexpensive part-time lefty-masher for the Rangers, White Sox and Yankees. Though he's nowhere near the player who won 10 Gold Gloves, made five All-Star teams and appeared headed for Cooperstown, he hasn't had a base salary of more than $2 million in any of the four seasons since. If Bay can't resurrect his career in its entirety, he can hope to go the Jones route. One early possibility is with the Indians, where he would be reunited with incoming manager Terry Francona, who managed him in Boston. Cleveland's leftfielders hit just .215/.277/.321 last year, and it will be dipping into the winter market in one way or another to find a better solution. There's no guarantee Bay can provide that, but it will cost them almost nothing to find out.