He's hitting .271/.329/.584 in mid-June, and .249/.320/.468 for his career. He leads Major League Baseball in triples with six, which is already more than he's ever hit during any of his previous eight seasons in the big leagues. His career so far has been marked by durability and moderate offensive prowess, but he spent the past two years hurt or underperforming at the plate. He's Jay Bruce, Cincinnati Red, and he's either the smartest deal a team can make on the trade market, or the riskiest one. Maybe he's both.
The Reds, of course, are going nowhere fast in 2016. The Chicago Cubs have locked up the National League Central so tight that local media outlets are already fantasizing about October; even if they're punished for that hubris in the second half of the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals are more than capable of picking up the slack. Bruce is one of the few bright spots in a very dismal season for the Reds (Who might the others even be? Adam Duvall? Dan Straily?), and despite his long tenure in Cincinnati, it's probably time for him to be moving on as Johnny Cueto, Todd Frazier, and others already have.
Bruce is off to an electric start this year: in addition to the six triples, he's got 12 doubles and 15 home runs, displaying real power to all parts of the field. Bruce has never been a high average hitter—if the season ended tomorrow, his .271 average would represent the second highest mark of his career, a little below his .281 in 2010—so he has to make those hits count. A hitter who makes about 60 percent of his hits go for extra bases is a lot more valuable than one who makes it past first base only 40 percent of the time, and a .270 hitter doing that is also far, far more valuable than a .220 hitter doing that, as Bruce had been the previous two seasons.
Bruce is a bit of a liability on defense, although that has always been the case. While Bruce has the arm to make all the throws in right field and good enough instincts that the Reds toyed around with him as a center-field option early in his career, he lacks the physical range to be a plus outfielder. That doesn't mean he has to go into a playing time rotation with any new team or that only American League clubs are acceptable suitors for his services; it just means that in order for him to be worth the acquisition, Bruce will need to keep up his torrid pace at the plate. If he can, he'll remain one of the more valuable outfielders in the game, as he has been so far this year. The moment he stops, though, he'll go back to being Jay Bruce.
Can he keep it up? Maybe, maybe not—I'm not going to pretend to be an expert Bruce-ologist. We can probably assume Bruce hasn't permanently upgraded his game at age 29, but there's no reason to think he can't stabilize at (or slightly above) the level of performance he had before the speed bump of his past two seasons. The good news for any team that acquires Bruce from the Reds is his contract: he will earn an eminently reasonable $12.5 million this season, almost half of which has already been paid by the Reds, and is due $13.5 million next year—but that contract year is a team option, with a $1 million buyout. So should Bruce collapse down the stretch, his new team could cut bait this off-season with relative ease.
That makes Bruce's market pretty much any contending team in baseball that could use an outfielder; the Kansas City Royals, the Chicago White Sox, and the San Francisco Giants would all be attractive landing spots immediately. The Baltimore Orioles and the Detroit Tigers could be in the discussion, as well, depending on how committed they are to their current windows and, more important, how willing they are to trade from farms that need some serious relief from deadline prospect bleed.
It is almost inconceivable that Bruce won't find a home; with James Shields already dealt, the trade market is open and active. A team that deals for Bruce sooner rather than later gets him for more games this year, and the Reds may be willing to deal Bruce as soon as they get a package they like rather than hold onto the deadline for the best theoretical package available. After all, while Bruce is a good player, he's not this good.
Almost certainly not, anyway. That's the gamble. For teams looking to add a piece that will get them to the playoffs, there's no sense in waiting. It's best to strike while the iron is hot, and right now, Jay Bruce—seriously, Jay Bruce—is the hottest thing on the market.
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