Increasingly, it has become fashionable to ask the question, in columns and on Twitter, “How long can the Mets go on playing Jason Bay on a regular basis?”
The answer, of course, is: for the rest of the 2011 season, at least.
As usual, the question is usually framed in a binary fashion: Bay, or no Bay? From that perspective, the answer seems easy. Bay has been just awful this year, with a .632 OPS in 307 plate appearances. That would be terrible at any position, but particularly while playing mediocre-at-best defense in left field, it is utterly terrible.
So the visceral relief at not having to watch Jason Bay make outs, while angrily contemplating the huge amount of money owed to Bay through the end of 2013, seems to make the decision an easy one. Put Bay on an ice floe and be done with it. Case closed, right?
Well, no. The Mets cannot simply fail to field a left fielder. And if the focus is on 2012 and beyond, Bay is by far the best choice to be playing left field regularly for the Mets from here on out.
Consider that only Johan Santana will earn more guaranteed money, as of right now, on the 2012 and 2013 New York Mets. If Bay is benched tomorrow, the number of chances he’ll have to either come out of his 18-month-long slump sufficiently to help the Mets, or to provide enough possible value to another team to entice a trade of some kind (probably still one where the Mets eat a bunch of money), will diminish significantly.
Simply put, as odd as this reality is, Bay is a big part of the team’s future from an asset allocation standpoint. It is in the team’s best interest to play him regularly. It’s not as if a further slump will lower his trade value, after all. And contending in 2011 just isn’t happening, or at least, cannot be how the Mets plan going forward.
Moreover, in the next few months, Bay isn’t going to be blocking anyone else who could provide a better answer at the position in 2012-2013. Lucas Duda has been terrific, particularly of late. His OPS is now a sturdy .791. But guess what? It sure looks like the Mets are about to have an opening in right field. So Duda has a position there, not to mention a chance to play first base whenever the Mets decide to give Daniel Murphy more reps at second base, or David Wright a day off at third base. So Bay isn’t blocking Duda.
As for other left field alternatives, Kirk Nieuwenhuis had shoulder surgery– he’s out for the season. Fernando Martinez has been out of action since July 15 with a hip injury; he’s also putting up a pedestrian .737 OPS at Triple-A, not hitting lefties at all, and sure looks like someone who needs more time to refine his swing in the minor leagues. I happen to like the recent under-the-radar waiver wire pickup Mike Baxter, but he likely profiles more as organizational depth this season as he recovers from thumb surgery.
So the question isn’t “Bay, or no Bay?” It is, “If not Bay, then who?” And there’s no good answer.
Given how much the Mets still have invested in him, Bay needs to be out there. Even if you aren’t optimistic that he’ll ever find his swing again- even if you view it as an infinitesimal chance- well, that’s still better than zero, which is the value Bay provides if the Mets bail on him now, without any upside in doing so.