It's exactly 271 miles from Great American Ball Park to the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville, TN, once again the host for MLB's annual Winter Meetings. In a day or two, Walt Jocketty and Dick Williams will polish their boots, hop in what I can only hope is a porcelain white '72 Cadillac Deville, and blast old George Jones tapes on their four hour drive to Music City.
Presumably, they'll be towing a dumpster stuffed with the 2015 Cincinnati Reds season behind them with ideas on pawning the parts that still have value, anything for a puncher's chance at resuscitating their franchise after back to back miserable seasons. They'll have plenty of suitors, too, as Aroldis Chapman and his 105 mph fastball will be on the trade block, possibly next to Todd Frazier and his 35 dinger season.
If the Reds' two-headed GM monster has their thinking cap (caps?) on, however, Jay Bruce won't be standing next to them.
Bruce, as you know, has been a pretty bad major league baseball player for two years running. He's hit just .222 with a .695 OPS since the start of the 2014 season, his batting average being the second worst in all of baseball among the 117 players with at least 1000 PA over that span. And, if that wasn't morbid enough, the -0.8 fWAR he's been worth in that time has been worsted by only Billy Butler.
Chew a handful of Nexium and look at this:
That's Jay Bruce and Ryan Howard since the beginning of 2014. Jay Bruce is Ryan Howard. Stop punching yourself.
Here I am, 300 words and a vomitous table into a piece about why the Reds should keep Jay Bruce, and all I've done is suggest he's akin to the mostly widely panned player and contract the game has seen this half-decade. There's a point to this, though, and it's one that brings circumstances into reason aside from the basic principle of "have good baseball players -> be good at baseball." Said circumstances are, of course, that the Cincinnati Reds are prepping to be abysmal in 2016, and that the barren wasteland of outfielders in the Reds' system doesn't exactly mean that Jay Bruce is Ndamukong Suh standing in the way of the next Mike Trout's development.
The reality here is that Bruce's value has a pair of things working his his - and therefore the Reds'- favor. First, his blown knee meniscus from the 2014 season obviously sapped his production, and it's most certainly a big reason why his overall numbers fell off the Roebling Bridge from the dependability he'd shown from 2010-2013. Being two years removed from that injury (and still just a peach at age 29) means he's not likely finished as a athlete or a ballplayer, and there's still time for him to rediscover the talent that made him the game's top overall prospect at one time.
Secondly - and perhaps more importantly - is that his contract is a fart in a pulp mill compared to both the going rate for players in today's game and in the context of the overall Cincinnati Reds payroll. Chris Davis was the only player in baseball worse than Jay Bruce in 2014, and he's about to sign for $140 million. Yoenis Cespedes hit .251 with a .298 OBP over the course of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, and he, too, was pegged as a $140+ player by MLB Trade Rumors. Bruce making $12.5 million in 2016 (with an equally reasonable option price that provides flexibility to any team he's playing for) is nothing, really, and with the departures of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Mike Leake, Marlon Byrd, and Aroldis Chapman, there's room in the payroll for the Reds to give Bruce a few months to recoup a bit of value.
"Recoup a bit of value," not "prove to everyone he doesn't suck." There's a distinctly discernible difference.
See, it was only as far back as July 30th of 2015 when Bruce was boasting a career-best walk rate, owned a .257/.341/.486 batting line, and was on the cusp of being traded for Zack Wheeler before the Reds - not the New York Mets - reportedly balked at the offer being too measly to accept. (That's the same Zack Wheeler that, yes, is recovering from Tommy John Surgery, but was also the #5 overall prospect in baseball before 2013, according the Baseball Prospectus). It's not like Jay has been Billy Hamilton bad with the bat throughout his career and is someone being scrapped for whatever spare parts he's worth at this point; rather, he's been good before, been consistently good before, and aside from a woeful .193 BABIP over the final two months of 2015, has been quite good quite recently. Selling low on him now just doesn't seem like the right time, at all.
Think of it this way, if you will. Teams eat salary all the time to move players whose contracts are probably larger than the player's value in order to maximize the return that they get back, provided that they've got the financial resources. It's how the Los Angeles Dodgers got Yasmani Grandal when they dumped Matt Kemp (and ate $30 million), and - on a smaller scale - how the Philadelphia Phillies got Ben Lively in return for Marlon Byrd when they used their wallet muscles to eat $4 million for the Reds. If the Reds opt to hold on to Bruce in an already lost season and pay him until moving him at the July 31st trade deadline, they'd in essence be eating about $7 million to see if he can be more like the Jay Bruce of old than the Jay Bruce of the final two months of 2015. And, if they're right, the kind of prospect package they'd get in return for moving him would be leaps and bounds better than if they simply chose to cut bait during this off-season. If he doesn't return to form, they've chewed up $7 million that wasn't the difference in them being good or not, and they'll still have the chance to trade him for something akin to what they'd get if they moved him right now.
In the grand scheme, it's time that the Reds moved on from the Jay Bruce era, but there's not a time-crunch that dictates it needs to happen right this very minute. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Reds have sucked themselves into the position of not needing to rush to move him, and with not much else to play for in 2016, they'd be wise to see if one of their current liabilities can remake itself into a much more marketable asset.