What Exactly Are the Mets Doing After Trading Jay Bruce to Cleveland?

After trading Jay Bruce to the Indians, it's hard to see where the Mets are going.
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Neither he nor any of the 34,000 fans in attendance on a beautiful afternoon at Citi Field knew it at the time, but Jay Bruce’s last at-bat as a member of the New York Mets came Wednesday in the seventh inning against the Rangers. He grounded out to second base, completing an 0-for-3 day, and two innings later the Mets’ 5-1 loss was also final. By day’s end, so too was Bruce’s brief, 153-game stint in a New York uniform.

Bruce had been traded to the Cleveland Indians for a little-known A-Ball pitcher with the wonderful name of Ryder Ryan, who may yet be the more interesting player involved in this trade, though less for anything he may do to help his new team win and more for what he says about the current state of the Mets and their future plans.

First, Bruce. There is the low-hanging-fruit narrative, in which he is returning to Ohio, where he spent the first nine seasons of his major league career with the Cincinnati Reds, helping them turn their franchise around while becoming one of the game’s premier home run hitters. He is 30 years old, a three-time All-Star and a two-time Silver Slugger winner. He has hit 270 home runs since arriving in the majors in 2008, more than all but five other active players. He will hit a few more for Cleveland, and it will need him to, given that the team ranks a pedestrian ninth in the league in home runs and sixth in runs scored. Bruce’s addition was made necessary by the fact that outfielder Michael Brantley went on disabled list with an ankle injury, creating a hole in the lineup that his 6’3”, 225-pound frame is ideally suited to fill.

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This is exactly the move that a team should make if it lost Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings a year ago and carries a four-game lead in the division race in mid-August. It won’t guarantee the Indians a return trip the postseason, much less the World Series, but it rarely hurts to add an in-his-prime slugger with a career high OPS.

The Mets’ side of the trade is where things get more interesting, and more curious. Yes, there was little need for Bruce in Queens, what with the Mets staggering toward a sub-.500 finish and having already traded away first baseman Lucas Duda and reliever Addison Reed before the July 31 deadline. And yes, Cleveland will pay Bruce’s entire remaining salary and, yes, he can become a free agent after the season.

However, New York could have made him a qualifying offer. The rules for free agent compensation have changed (again), but the short version is that because the Mets do not receive revenue sharing and are not expected to exceed the luxury tax threshold, the pick they would get if Bruce signed elsewhere would effectively come after the second round.

Would that pick be better than a 22 year old with a 4.55 ERA in 48 career professional games who was a position player in college just two years ago? We’ll never know. Mets GM Sandy Alderson said after trading Duda and Reed to the Rays and Red Sox, respectively, that the team needed bullpen help for next year and indeed, he got four relievers in those deals. Ryan is yet another reliever—he was a catcher and infielder at North Carolina before being drafted in the 30th round last year—but he’s far enough away from the majors that it seems unlikely he could help the team in 2018 the way A.J. Ramos, acquired from the Marlins last month, will.

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Trading Bruce would appear to be a sign that more deals are coming. Asdrubal Cabrera, Curtis Granderson and Neil Walker—the latter two of whom will also be free agents at season’s end—could be among those following Bruce on the 7 train out of Queens before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline arrives. If they go, however, Alderson will have to get more for them than he did for Duda (Drew Smith, a 23-year-old righthander who has pitched all of one game above Double A) and Bruce in particular.

The Mets have needs that go beyond simply plugging in pieces to the bullpen, which Alderson, as the father of Moneyball, knows is every team's most interchangeable area. They will need to find out from where they can get reliable hitting. They will need to know if their two most promising everyday prospects, shortstop Amed Rosario and minor league first baseman Dominic Smith, can handle full-time roles at the major league level. They will even need to know if David Wright can contribute, or if they should just go ahead and schedule his jersey retirement ceremony already.

Mostly, though, next season for New York will hinge, as the past several years have, on how many starts its top young starting pitchers make and how effective those starters are when they take the ball. It’s already become something of an antiquated notion in a sport in which bullpens, not rotations, are where a team’s fate is often decided, and yet it’s hard to blame the Mets for being willing to take one more chance with their core of stud pitchers.

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Besides, if Jacob deGrom is as good next year as he has been this year; if Noah Syndergaard avoids MRIs because he doesn’t need them and not just because he refuses to take them; if Matt Harvey can rediscover his fastball; if Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler can get their ERAs under 5; and Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman can contribute, then yes, New York can and should be right back in the playoff discussion. Expecting them to jump over the Nationals, though, might be a tall order, which would mean the Mets are doing all of this for the privilege of, at best, hosting the wild-card game. How did that work out last year again?

The trades Alderson has made thus far could be a sign that he is not particularly confident in his rotation returning to the dominance that carried New York to the World Series in 2015. Building a better bullpen would allow some safety net for the inevitable struggles and injuries the rotation will suffer in 2018. But the bullpen’s difficulties—and with a 4.77 ERA that is third-worst in the majors, there have been plenty—are not why the Mets’ are destined to limp through the final one-third of the season with no meaningful games other than the ones against teams that actually have a chance to reach the postseason. It’s because Syndergaard made five starts before being lost for the year and because Harvey, Matz and Wheeler have combined for a 5.37 ERA while making just 41 starts.

In some ways, New York might be the most interesting team in the majors this month. The Mets have more name-brand pieces to trade than any other club and they are expected to actually trade them. It is as if their Hot Stove season is playing out right alongside their actual season. That will give us a glimpse of how good they will be in 2018 long before 2017 is even finished.