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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jason Bay v. Cynicism

It has been reported that the Mets are on the verge of signing a long-term contract with Jason Bay, the left-fielder, most recently of the Red Sox, who is probably most famous as the guy who Manny Ramirez got traded for. New York has reportedly given Bay $66 Million over four years, with a vesting option which could add a fifth year at $14 Million.

So, while Bay will not become baseball's 20th Hundred Million Dollar Man (if recent reports are accurate, that title will fall to Matt Holliday), if the fifth year vests, his contract would be among the largest dozen or so ever given to an outfielder, just behind Torii Hunter (5 yr./$90 Mil.) and just ahead of J. D. Drew (5 yr./$70 Mil.).

Several commentators, including a fair number of Mets fans, have criticized the Bay signing. Rob Neyer calls Bay a "slow power hitter who can't really play the outfield." And while I'm usually prone to agree with Rob and I share his skepticism to some extent, I'm generally quite surprised by all the negativity. Jason Bay, it would appear to me, is the kind of guy who deserves to get paid. In six full seasons, he has never played less than 120 games. Four times he's topped 30 HR and 100 RBI. In only one season (2007) did his OPS dip below 895. He's soft-spoken and popular with his teammates. When he came over to Boston, in the middle of a highly-scrutinized pennant race, replacing one of the best players in the franchise's history, he really rose to the occasion, hitting .315 with 29 RBI in his first month with the team. What's not to like?

Well, there is the question of his "slowness." Early in his career Bay was a 20/20 man, who even played a little centerfield, but a knee surgery in 2006 has limited him somewhat. It shouldn't go unnoticed, however, that Bay is still a smart and effective baserunner. He stole ten bases in '08 without being caught and thirteen in '09 (only being caught three times), bringing his career stolen base rate to an admirable 82.5%. He may not be a burner, but this isn't exactly Paul Konerko either.

Bay's defense is also considered a liability, and there is more substantial proof to that effect. He's always had a noodle arm, but in recent years his overall outfield performance has really gone in the tank. In his first three years with the Pirates, his UZR stayed right around the league average, perfectly acceptable for a hitter of his quality, but from '07 to '09 he has posted Ultimate Zone Ratings of -11.5, -18.4, and -13.0. Pure faith in UZR would probably lead us to rank him as quite possibly the worst everyday left-fielders in all of baseball, and left field isn't exactly a position known for defense. Of course, for half of that time he was playing left field at Fenway, which is probably the single most abnormal positional space in the whole league, so I think we have to question the reliability of his recent defensive metrics. Is he a Gold-Glover? Absolutely not. Is he as bad as Adam Dunn or Raul Ibanez? I sincerely doubt it.

Buster Olney sagely points out that last year the Mets primary left-fielders were Gary Sheffield and Daniel Murphy, neither of whom will probably ever play the position again, so Jason Bay is a considerable upgrade. The Mets other outfielders, Carlos Betran and Jeff Francoeur, are both excellent defenders (especially Beltran), which should compensate slightly for whatever range Bay lacks.

In the same column, Olney carefully analyzes Bay's homers from '09 on Hit Tracker, responding to the other major criticism against Bay, that his power won't translate to spacious Citi Field. He concludes that Bay would've still hit 30 HR as a Met, rather than the 36 he hit as a Red Sock (sp?). I think the Mets would be perfectly happy with that total.

Last week I argued that the Mets best course of action this offseason was to "stand pat," rather than pursue expensive free agents like Bay and Joel Pineiro. I knew they wouldn't go that route, but I thought it made for a nice hypothetical. I still don't think they have the firepower to catch the Phillies, because even if they follow the Bay signing with the acquisition of Pineiro, Ben Sheets, or Erik Bedard, they won't have the rotational depth of a serious contender. In the end, regardless of the what the Mets do for the remainder of the offseason, they are going to need everything to go right in 2010 if they are even to have a shot at the Wild Card in a division which features the powerhouse Phillies and two other solid franchises, the Braves and the Marlins.

Whether or not New York gets the resurgence of power they expect from Bay and David Wright (who hit only 10 HR in '09) is dependent mainly on the health of Carlos Beltran (81 games in '09) and Jose Reyes (36 games in '09). If both are fully healthy, than the Mets lineup looks like something to be reckoned with. If not, than Bay and Wright will be consistently pitched around, just as Wright and Sheffield were in '09, and the run-scoring will slow to a trickle. Even more important is the health of Johan Santana, who missed the final six weeks of '09 with an elbow injury which required surgery. If the Mets have to enter next season without their horse, the season will be over before it begins.

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