Jay Bruce’s first season in the majors was somewhat of a letdown given the hype and his torrid start, but there are enough positive signs that most Reds fans, or at least those here, are happy knowing that Bruce will be a critical part of the lineup for the next several years. His didn't hit for a high average but he still hit with power (~200 ISO) and showed good instincts in RF despite a few lapses in judgment. Overall his line of 254/314/453 was good for a 96 OPS+ and a .328 wOBA, and he finished fifth in NL ROY voting. Bruce is 21, under team control for six more years, and isn't eligible for arbitration until the 2012 season. This is an enormous advantage for the club because it will pay him much, much less than he'd receive on the open market and because they don't have to commit to him for more than a year at a time.
With all that said, now may be the time to sign him to a long-term deal. More teams are locking elite arb and even pre-arb players into extensions that give the player financial stability and the team cost savings and certainty. Given his tepid rookie year, the economy, and most significantly the fact that he’s three seasons away from arbitration, this may seem like an odd time to negotiate. But I think for these and other reasons this is the ideal time:
- We’d be "buying low" in the sense that his future performance is expected to be much better than this past year. Bill James has him projected at 296/351/540 in 2009, which is a bit bullish but not out of line with general expectations for Jay.
- By offering Jay his first big pay day three years ahead of schedule, the Reds should get a significant discount. As one example Dustin Pedroia’s extension (6 years, $40.5 million) is worth something like a $25.8 million discount. And this was signed when he was still a year away from arbitration. As Jay didn’t come up until late May of this past year, he won’t be an arb-1 player until 2012 and likely won’t be eligible for Super 2 arbitration in 2011.
- Because other players like Pedroia have signed long-term extensions, there's already a market set that should make negotiations somewhat easier - especially for the team. Pedroia will be paid $3.5, $5.5, and $8 million for his arbitration years in 2010. Longoria is a better comp as he was often compared with Bruce before this year, signed his extension in his rookie year, and plays a position closer to Jay's on the defensive spectrum. Longoria will receive 6 years/$17.5 million plus three club option years which could bring it to $44.5 million for 9 years. FWIW Matt Sosnick, Jay’s agent, seems open to these kinds of deals because he negotiated a three-year extension for Dontrelle Willis last winter while Willis was still a year away from FA (and what a smart thing to do that was).
- I’m sure the Reds are somewhat reluctant to spend money given the economic climate, but that potentially gives them more leverage if Jay is interested in sacrificing his earnings upside for stability. Besides, I don't think it will be all doom and gloom for baseball over the next few years. Broadcasting contracts are locked in (at least nationally), and revenues from the new MLB network and the internet (MLBAM) should help cushion losses in ticket sales (BP article, subscription required).
Injury/performance risk is naturally the primary argument against a long-term deal. At least one player I can think of (Eric Hinske) that signed an extension didn’t work out like the team hoped. The injury risk doesn’t concern me because of Jay's position. It would be different if we were talking about a pitcher, catcher, or middle infielder as opposed to a corner OF. Also, Bruce doesn’t have any significant injuries in his past that I’m aware of and he doesn’t play in a style (Freel) that gives me pause.
My proposal – 7 years, $27.5 million, and a two-year team option for $10 million/year with a $3 million buyout. The breakout would be something like: $1 million signing bonus, 0.5 (2009), 0.75, 1.25, 2.0 (2012, arb-1), 4.5, 6.0, 8.5 (2015, FA-1), and then the team option which would bring it to $45 million for 9 years. The arb year amounts are the same as Longoria’s but they will occur a year later, which I think is a fair trade-off. Jay is undoubtedly sacrificing higher paydays in exchange for guaranteed money now, but he’ll only be 30 at the end of the contract and can still go for the big payday then.
Too soon? Other thoughts?