Mets might be stuck with Jay Bruce -- at least for now

Despite the Mets' crowded outfield and persistent trade rumors, Jay Bruce may still be headed to spring training with the team. AP Photo/Kathy Willens

NEW YORK -- When Yoenis Cespedes re-signed in late November, New York Mets officials intended to pivot by trading fellow outfielder Jay Bruce. After all, freeing the $13 million owed to Bruce, whose option was picked up earlier that month, would allow the Mets to redirect that money into bulking up their bullpen.

Yet nearly two months later, and with pitchers and catchers less than three weeks from reporting to camp, Bruce remains with the club as part of a congested outfield. And general manager Sandy Alderson -- whether posturing or preparing fans -- is now suggesting the Mets could take Bruce into spring training … or even into the season.

And that clearly isn’t the optimal scenario since the Mets also have Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Michael Conforto, Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo under contract to patrol the outfield.

With Cespedes now locked into left field and Granderson needed in center field as the lefty-hitting complement to Lagares, Bruce’s presence on Opening Day would presumably impact the playing time of Conforto in right field, while relegating Nimmo to Triple-A Las Vegas. Keep in mind Conforto hit .422 in 33 games at Las Vegas in 2016 and has nothing left to prove in the minors. Granderson has been reported as a trade candidate, too, but Alderson has been clear he is likely to hold onto Granderson.

“When we talk about moving an outfielder, are we talking about moving an outfielder today?” Alderson asked, without directly mentioning Bruce. “Are we talking about moving an outfielder in spring training? Are we talking about moving an outfielder two months into the season? Are we talking about moving an outfielder at the trade deadline? There are a whole host of possibilities.

“The situation right now with outfielders has been created by the number of free agents that exist. Well, on Day 1 of spring training, most of those outfielders are going to be signed. They’re not going to be in the market. So, from our standpoint, we just have to monitor our needs together with what other clubs may need and be able to respond under the circumstances. Keep in mind: We have a number of players coming off injury. So to the extent that we carry an extra outfielder or an extra infielder into spring training isn’t such a bad idea.”

Alderson suggested at the winter meetings in December that the payroll likely would go down from its $147 million level before Opening Day. So it seemed at the time that shedding Bruce’s $13 million contract for 2017 was a prerequisite to infusing a bullpen that, at least for now, has lost left-hander Jerry Blevins and right-hander Fernando Salas -- both trusted, late-inning arms -- to free agency.

The Mets also may be without closer Jeurys Familia at the start of the season if Major League Baseball hands down a suspension. Familia was charged with simple assault stemming from a reported domestic violence incident in late October, though the charge was later dropped and expunged from the record by a New Jersey judge last month.

Meeting with reporters earlier this month, Alderson walked back his winter meetings suggestion that Bruce’s contract needed to be shed in order to further invest in the bullpen. The GM said that’s “not necessarily” the case. Still, Alderson proceeded to talk up the Mets' internal candidates for the bullpen. Those candidates include two of the three excess starting pitchers from Zack Wheeler, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, since they presumably won’t be needed in the rotation if Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey and Steven Matz are all ready from the get-go following 2016 surgeries. Alderson also mentioned fellow right-handers Gabriel Ynoa and Rafael Montero as bullpen candidates.

The GM acknowledged that, minus Blevins, the Mets are not deep with established talent from the left side. But the Mets do have southpaws Josh Edgin and Josh Smoker, among others, as bullpen candidates.

“There’s a perception that we need help in the bullpen,” Alderson said. “I would agree to some extent that we don’t have proven left-handed relief currently in the bullpen. But with the emergence of Lugo and Gsellman, together with some other people that we have currently in the system like Ynoa, like Montero, we actually feel pretty good about the bullpen from the right side. That’s not to say we wouldn’t consider doing something. But we actually think that could be a strength for us with what we have. Fortunately we saw the emergence of Lugo and Gsellman last year. Together with what we’ve mentioned about the possibility of Zack Wheeler in the pen at least initially this season, I think from the right side we’re fairly comfortable.

“With respect to the payroll, we are currently at a number that’s, I’d say, tolerable. But, certainly, there are limits to what any club can do to continue to improve its roster. At the same time, we’re pretty happy with what we have currently.”

Bruce had been traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Mets on Aug. 1, 2016, after a few years of being mentioned in nonstop trade rumblings. Yet with a new employer, he still does not have peace of mind about stability.

“Obviously the market for certain players -- for certain free agents and therefore trade candidates -- has been slow at best and nonexistent at worst,” Alderson said. “So what we continue to do is reassess where we are and what our options are going forward. Those options range from doing something soon, which is possible -- less possible, [but] is possible -- or doing nothing. There are a variety of reasons for considering holding onto players, one of which is the players who have been mentioned as possible trade candidates by us. ... And so, as an option, we are considering holding on to what we have.”