The Blue Jays and Jay Bruce: What’s changed since February

The Toronto Blue Jays had a deal in place for Jay Bruce involving Michael Saunders this past offseason that fell apart just prior to completion

Jay Bruce is a link that the Blue Jays just can’t shake.

Perhaps they don’t want to, either, but since last year’s deadline (at least), the Blue Jays have held an interest in the Cincinnati Reds’ outfielder and made at least two legitimate runs at him. The most recent, in late February, looked like a done deal with Michael Saunders going to the Angels in a three-team deal. The non-trade has still worked out for the Reds and Jays, though, with Saunders and Bruce both being named All-Stars this season.

In the weeks following the trade that never was, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that the Reds had agreed to pay about $8 million of Bruce’s $12.5 million contract for 2016.

With two and a half weeks before the July 31st deadline, the Bruce link persists.

“The Jays, if they acquired Bruce, could DH Jose Bautista and reduce, or eliminate, the role of Justin Smoak,” said Ken Rosenthal on his July 9th edition of Full Count. “The best way for the Jays to impact their team is by adding pitching. That remains their clear priority. Still, the market is so limited, the team might try to upgrade on the offensive side.”

Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball has recently listed the Blue Jays as a possibility still for the left-handed slugger.

“I want to play in October,” Bruce told Jon Heyman on Monday. “I’m 29. I’m not getting any younger. What I want most is the chance to play in a World Series.”

This is the same conversation, just a different date, so how has the situation changed in terms of the Blue Jays and Bruce himself?

2016 Jay Bruce:  .267 AVG / .853 OPS  –  18 HR / 63 RBI

At the time of this offseason’s non-trade, Bruce was coming off two very poor years at the plate where he combined to hit .222 with a .695 OPS. He did provide the 44 home runs that are expected from him, but with 294 strikeouts in 294 games, his value was empty. Bruce posted a 0.1 fWAR last year and a -0.9 fWar in 2014.

This season has gone much better. Along with the power numbers, Bruce has his on-base percentage up around the league average at .315 with a BABIP nearly identical to his career rate, so the performance should be sustainable.

His defence, however, has been worse than ever when considering his Range Rating and UZR/150. Bruce is a liability in the field that relies on his bat, that much has not changed, because even with his 2016 offence Bruce is staring at a 0.0 fWAR.

The Toronto Blue Jays

The clear line to draw between Bruce and Toronto, of course, is the injury to Jose Bautista in right field.

Yes, Ezequiel Carrera has outplayed his expected contributions, but is hitting just .229 since the beginning of June and remains better suited for a reserve role. As Rosenthal said, the addition of Bruce would allow the Blue Jays some flexibility between right field, first base, and designated hitter.

Besides, Justin Smoak is hitting just .160 since the beginning of June and has gone over a month without a multi-hit game.

Adding a bat is not the obvious route for Toronto to take, but if all pitching options are exhausted, then chasing a maxed-out batting order does have merit. Pitching wins in the playoffs, yes, but pitching needs to beat hitting. Far too often, the construction of a championship team is oversimplified to fit the most recent winners.

What it all means

The most prominent value in Bruce may still be his one season team control, with a $13 million team option due next year. He could conceivably play up to that value if the Blue Jays found ways to hide his glove completely, so with Saunders and Bautista both facing free agency, there is a square peg to fit into a square hole at the very least.

Would the Reds still eat some of the (smaller) remaining money left on his 2016 salary? How different would the Reds’ asking price be, and would it still be possible to match up on an appetizing deal without involving a third party?

Given the offensive numbers he’s put up, Bruce is no longer a piece that Cincinnati is simply looking to unload for financial relief. He could now fetch a more legitimate piece or package, but if the Blue Jays have remained interested this long, there’s little reason to see them stopping now.