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Game-changer? Maybe not, but signing Bay makes sense for Mets

The Mets have two geographical rivals: One is in their city, one is in their division, and both were in the 2009 World Series. For all the challenging seasons the Mets have endured through their history -- 120 losses in 1962, worst team money could buy in '93, September swoons in '07 and '08 -- there was something unique about the agony they experienced in '09.

After dropping 93 games, they had to watch the hated Phillies repeat as National League champions and then the more-hated Yankees take the World Series. Mets' principal owner Fred Wilpon graciously showed up to Yankee Stadium for Game 1, as if to marinate in the discomfort.

By reportedly agreeing to a contract with left fielder Jason Bay on Tuesday, the Mets do not necessarily change the power structure in their city or their division. But they do change the conversation. The Mets, and not the Yankees, have made the splashiest move of the offseason in New York. The Mets, and not the Phillies, have made the most significant offensive addition in the National League East. At a time when other big-market teams are hoarding nickels, the Mets identified the player they wanted, pursued him aggressively but not foolishly, and landed him for a relatively fair price.

The Mets will be second-guessed for giving a four-year, $66 million contract to a left fielder with bad knees and a questionable throwing arm, but keep in mind that the value-conscious Red Sox reportedly offered Bay four years and $60 million when free agency opened. He turned them down, believing other teams would step forward, but only one did. Bay let the Mets squirm for weeks, presumably aware of their history, hoping they would get anxious and bid against themselves. But the Mets remained patient and Bay eventually realized that he should sign with the only team that really seemed to want him.

Bay is an awkward match for Citi Field, given the ballplayer's skill set and the ballpark's expansive dimensions. He is a power hitter going to a stadium that does not yield home runs, a mediocre defender going to an outfield with gaping alleys. But the Mets hit a major-league low 95 home runs last season, compared to 244 by the Yankees, and they absolutely had to come away from this winter with a legitimate slugger. Only two were on the market -- Bay and Matt Holliday -- and while Bay may be a questionable fit for the Mets, Holliday was much more so.

Holliday made his reputation in the high altitude at Coors Field, and when he was traded to Oakland last season and forced to play in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, his power numbers came crashing down to sea level. He thrived at the end of the year in St. Louis, where fragile players are protected by a relentlessly supportive fan base, but he has never been exposed to the kind of scrutiny common in New York. Bay, on the other hand, showed in the past two years that he could make Boston forget Manny Ramirez. If he can do that, he can handle Queens.

Oddly enough, Bay has already played for the Mets and their general manager, Omar Minaya When Minaya was Expos GM in 2002, and Bay was an Expos farmhand, Minaya traded him to the Mets, who traded him to the Padres, who traded him to the Pirates. No one knew what they had. But everywhere Bay went, he won over teammates and fans with his dry wit and hockey mentality. A native of Trail, B.C. -- a town of 8,000 that has remarkably produced at least 10 current and former NHL players -- Bay can be counted on to play hurt, run out grounders and turn on fastballs.

How many of those fastballs he yanks over the left-field fence at Citi Field will determine whether his signing is a success. No one expects him to hit 36 home runs, as he did last season with the aid of the Green Monster, but the Mets have to wonder just how far he will fall. If the stadium takes the same toll on him that it did on third baseman David Wright -- 33 homers in '08, down to 10 in '09 -- perhaps the Mets will reconsider their approach and build exclusively around pitching, speed and defense.

But if Bay can hit even 25 home runs, and bolster a lineup that includes Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes coming back from injuries, the Mets could at least be a team of interest this season. They probably have too many holes in their pitching staff to contend, but they have too much talent to lose 90 games again either.

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