There’s not much the Mets can do about their Jason Bay situation, other than wait for Kirk Nieuwenhuis
Perhaps no single move captures the combination of poor decision-making and terrible luck that has plagued the New York Mets in recent years than the December 2009 signing of Jason Bay.
The four-year, $66 million contract was more than anyone else was offering Bay, who is about to enter his age-31 season. And one-dimensional players like Bay—his outstanding skill was power, and his defense was below-average in left field—don't tend to age particularly well.
But the Mets had no reason to think his one skill would disappear overnight. He had just hit 36 home runs and posted a robust OPS+ of 136 for the Boston Red Sox. And even Boston, with an enlightened Theo Epstein then in charge, had offered Bay a two-year deal with an option to return.
But it's the Mets, not the Red Sox, who have been saddled with Bay's poor performance and enormous contract ever since. Bay has hit 18 home runs, total, in his two seasons with the Mets. To put that in perspective, he'd hit no fewer than 21 home runs in any one season he'd played prior to signing with New York.
No one quite knows what the problem is, least of all Bay himself. A concussion ended his 2010 season after 95 games, but he hadn't sustained that injury when he went out and his six home runs while putting up a pedestrian 105 OPS+. And he played in 123 games in 2011, but his OPS+ dropped to 96, positvely anemic for the position of left field.
With the Mets at the halfway point of Bay's guaranteed contract, the question of exactly what to do with him has come up again this spring, following a preseason campaign filled with Bay's self-doubts and no home runs at all.
Trading Bay isn't an option; no team wants to take him on with such a large contract. Other suggestions have included platooning him—his numbers against lefties in 2011, though in a small sample, were the last vestige of the power threat he once was—and simply releasing him.
The Mets are fortunate to have a potential Bay replacement knocking on the door in Kirk Nieuwenhuis, a third-round pick in the 2008 draft who put up a gaudy .908 OPS last year for Triple-A Buffalo before a shoulder injury ended his season in June. Nieuwenhuis suffered an oblique injury this spring that sidelined him for much of spring camp, but appears to be healthy now. He's played predominantly center field in the minor leagues, but many observers believe his defense will play better in a corner.
A platoon between the left-handed Nieuwenhuis and right-handed Bay might make sense on paper immediately. But it shouldn't happen.
If the Mets believe there is any possibility of a Bay rebound, they're pretty much obliged to stick with him full-time in left field. If he can regain any of his pre-2010 form, the team might manage to trade him (while still, it is assumed, needing to pick up most of his salary). Any value they can extract from Bay by letting him work out his demons would be worth it, if it resulted in cash savings or any talent the Mets could put into subsequent years. Bay simply succeeding in a platoon is unlikely to lead to that kind of return.
And if after two-plus years of patience, the Mets simply don't believe Bay can play anymore, Nieuwenhuis ought to get regular time in the outfield, either by replacing Bay in left field, or more optimally, playing in right field, with Lucas Duda moving to left. A still-developing player needs his at-bats, and the surest way to keep Nieuwenhuis from learning how to hit lefties is to keep him from facing lefties. If Nieuwenhuis is to be part of the next contending Mets team, letting him play every day is the only outcome that makes sense. If that's in Triple-A right now, fine. But if he's called up to New York, he needs to get regular at-bats.
In a perfect world, of course, Nieuwenhuis conquers center field at the major-league level, Bay has a renaissance in left, and Andres Torres becomes the fourth outfielder he's more suited to be. But it has been a long time since the Mets have existed in a perfect world. At some point, it will be time to acknowledge that Bay isn't working out and move on. With any luck, Nieuwenhuis will make the decision an easy one.