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Mets give starting job to Jay Bruce even though Michael Conforto is better

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What’s next for Michael Conforto?

MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies
Bruce, 29, seen here holding up a ‘halt’ sign in what could only be Conforto’s direction.
Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

After an interesting offseason, it appears the Mets have resolved to not only keep Jay Bruce, but hand him the starting job in right field. According to Paul J. Bereswill of the New York Post, the Mets have officially notified Bruce that he will be the team’s starting right fielder to begin the season.

The 29-year-old Bruce was brought in by the Mets as a presumptive heir apparent in the off-chance Yoenis Cespedes signed elsewhere. Once Cespedes decided to stay in Flushing on a four-year deal worth $110 million, it appeared as though Bruce was not only expendable, but likely to be moved. Bereswill elaborated on the situation:

“The Mets have notified Bruce they anticipate starting the season with him as their everyday right fielder, an industry source told The Post. General manager Sandy Alderson said two weeks ago that Bruce, after being dangled in trade discussions for much of the offseason, could very well join the team at Tradition Field for spring training, and the team is now acting as if it will have Bruce for the entirety of the season.”

What’s curious though is what this means for the Mets’ start outfield prospect, Michael Conforto. The 23-year-old Conforto is almost definitely the odd-man out in the Mets’ outfield, which could be troublesome for the team’s chances at winning.

Despite hitting some hard times in the 2016 season, Conforto still cruised toward a season worth 1.3 wins above replacement according to FanGraphs. Over 348 plate appearances, that was less than most were expecting following his breakout 2014 campaign during which he was worth more than two wins in fewer than 200 plate appearances.

Even with Conforto not at his best, the Mets might still be better off with him in the field instead of Bruce. While Bruce hit 33 home runs last season, his defense cost his team more than 15 runs according to FanGraphs. Furthermore, despite his ability to drive the ball, it doesn’t translate to almost any on-base acumen. Among qualified hitters last year, Bruce finished with the 29th-worst OBP in the entire major leagues.

Going forward for the Mets, perhaps Conforto could be part of a prospect package that makes them more of a win-now team. With Cespedes under contract for the next four seasons, the Mets are likely looking at a window of competition that also has their starting rotation under team control. While Conforto’s service time is now ticking, the Mets would likely want to keep him in their future plans. However, if he isn’t in their present plans, some key years of his control are being wasted.

Conforto has options left and could begin the season with Triple-A Las Vegas, which might not be terrible for his development. And perhaps Conforto doesn’t spend long down there before an injury replacement is needed—that’s what depth is for after all. However, it doesn’t make sense to demote Conforto when you have a worse player at his position on your starting roster blocking him.

Unless an injury on the starting roster resolves this situation, the Bruce/Conforto situation will likely be one to monitor leading up to the 2017 trade deadline.