It is well known that the Mets have been trying to trade Jay Bruce this offseason. While Bruce has impressive career home run and RBI numbers, the impending free agent doesn’t figure to fit into the team’s long term plan. If you dismiss Bruce’s forgettable 2 months in Flushing last season and look at his career body of work, he is still a flawed player. In consecutive all-star seasons in 2011-12 where Bruce averaged 33 HR and 99 RBI, he still batted only .254 and averaged 157 strikeouts. Bruce has always been a liability defensively in RF at cozy Great American Ballpark, whereas Citi Field is one of the trickier places in MLB to play RF. It’s understandable for a casual fan to say “how do you give away a 30 HR guy for nothing?”. But to look beyond the power (no longer as big a concern with Walker and Cespedes returning), and evaluate what Bruce does to help the team over the course of 600 ABs and 1,400 innings in the outfield, his value seems far less. Bruce will likely return a middle reliever or a low level prospect in a trade.
Moving to the infield, there seems to be a divide amongst Mets fans regarding Lucas Duda. While Duda has the ability to hit for power, much of the other elements of his game leave Mets fans frustrated. While his high walk totals earn him favor with Sandy Alderson, Duda frequently appears passive at the plate, taking 2-0 and 3-1 fastballs that he could be driving for extra bases. Like many lefty sluggers, Duda is vulnerable to the defensive overshift and has not shown an ability to hit the ball the other way. Like Bruce, Duda has high strikeout totals and does not run the bases well. Other than in 2015, Duda has never hit LHP well. While Duda fans insist that he has improved defensively, being able to watch a James Loney save his infielders errors and give the pitching staff extra outs in 2016 gave insight of what it might be like when young Dominic Smith (like Loney, John Olerud, and Keith Hernandez, a left handed throwing first baseman) arrives. Duda would be a valuable left handed pinch hitter on the bench, similar to the role Matt Stairs served in Philadelphia, or Jason Giambi in Colorado. Duda could probably return some minor leaguers or a serviceable bullpen arm in a trade. There’d be no harm in keeping Duda on the bench and moving him in a mid-season trade. Aside from the eventual (September 2017?) Dominic Smith promotion, the Mets could fill first base with a number of in-house options: Michael Conforto, David Wright, Wilmer Flores, and TJ Rivera should all be given time at the position in spring training in consideration for starts at first base. Neil Walker also could play first base if needed, but that would require moving around other pieces, and the Walker-Cabrera double play combination proved to be quite effective.
The third area of concern is behind the plate. Rene Rivera did a fine job at handling the pitching staff last year as proven by a much lower staff ERA when Rivera was catching. The Mets starters’ inability to hold baserunners was an Achilles heel in 2016 that can exploited by opposing teams. The only logical answer is to make Rivera the starter, but with a veteran backup (A Dioner Navarro, Miguel Olivo type) to help round out the bench. Travis d’Arnaud should be sent to AAA Las Vegas where he can work on his catching or learn a new position. There are certain positions on the field (catcher, middle infield, centerfield) where defense should not be compromised. This was an issue when the Mets had a catcher who hit 40 home runs and batted .310. Travis d’Arnaud is nowhere near the hitter that Mike Piazza was, so to make your pitching staff suffer to carry a guy who is a slightly better hitter than Rene Rivera is out of the question.
In trading Bruce, demoting d’Arnaud to AAA, and trading or benching Lucas Duda, where does that leave the starting lineup? The key should be versatility. Pencil Cespedes in as the left fielder for 145 games. The catching should be split between Rivera and his veteran backup (Navarro?). David Wright would make an ideal righty platoon at first base. The front office needs to accept that 1.)David Wright’s days as a third baseman are over. 2.)Any plan for Wright must include an ironclad backup as he is liable to be lost for the season at any given moment. Any talk of moving Jose Reyes to the outfield should end immediately. Between Reyes, Neil Walker, Asdrubal Cabrera, and even throw Wright in there, there will be need to get regular days off as they are all 30 or over with history of injuries. TJ Rivera and Wilmer Flores will also provide depth with Matt Reynolds waiting in AAA if needed. That leaves Curtis Granderson, Juan Lagares, and Michael Conforto to share CF and RF. Likely, the Mets don’t plan on getting Conforto into the mix at first base. But with Granderson’s age, Lagares’ limited bat, and Conforto’s inexperience vs LHP, the three could share the two spots nicely. Rarely is Juan Lagares mentioned as an option to be the starting CF, but the plan should be to have him out there for as many innings as possible. The best way to win with pitching is to support that pitching with stellar defense, which gives them extra outs, saving pitches, allowing them to go deeper into games, and reduces the instances of second-tier relievers pitching in late and close situations. Replacing Bruce with Conforto/Lagares, replacing Duda with Wright/Flores/Dom Smith, and replacing d’Arnaud with Rene Rivera and a veteran backup accomplishes just that.