Jason Bay Would Return To Boston; Is That Good?

Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

The former Red Sox outfielder is a free agent once again, but the situation is much different than it was three years ago

Jason Bay was great with the Red Sox in the one-and-a-half-seasons he spent in Boston. He hit .274/.380/.534 in 200 games and 849 plate appearances, impressive enough to earn him a four-year deal worth $66 million in guaranteed money from the Mets. (Being the Mets under then-general manager Omar Minaya, they also threw in an expensive vesting option for a fifth year, because why not?) For a player with knee issues, that was too much money and too many years for Boston. Who, in fact, caused a rift in negotiations with Bay over that very knee.

That was during this time of year, three years ago. On Wednesday, the Mets bought Jason Bay out of his contract by agreeing to pay him all of it, but also letting him go from their current roster. It's good for the Mets, as they get to use that roster spot and plate appearances on someone who isn't Jason Bay, while the outfielder gets a chance to start fresh somewhere else, in an attempt to resurrect a career that is arguably past the point of reviving.

It's not a surprise to hear that, according to sources, Bay is open to returning to the Red Sox and Fenway Park, the last environment he had any kind of success in. Whether or not Boston also has interest is unknown, but general manager Ben Cherington is thorough, so you can be sure they'll take a look and ask around to see if there's anything there worth salvaging. What will they end up finding, though?

Bay almost immediately fell apart after leaving Boston. He played in just 95 games during that first season, and hit all of .259/.347/.402. His new home, Citi Field, was blamed for part of that, but Bay actually hit much worse on the road, posting a 121 split-adjusted OPS+ at Citi, and a below-average 94 in away games. The concussion he sustained wasn't to blame for his 2010 performance, as that injury ended his season in late July.

In 2011, it was fair to wonder if there were residual concussion effects keeping him from producing, as he put up a .245/.329/.374 line in 123 games, failing to hit on the road once again, while producing, relatively speaking, at Citi Field. Bay was a little better in the second half, further removed from the concussion, but .256/.339/.419 in his last 58 games isn't exactly thrilling, especially not for $18 million.

There were also the other injuries. In 2011, Bay is listed as suffering an intercostal strain, calf tightness, hamstring soreness, shoulder soreness (and re-aggravated shoulder soreness), as well as three separate instances of the flu. The problems were much the same the following year, when Bay dealt with a finger sprain, a rib fracture, a second concussion, and lower back stiffness. At this point, glass might be less fragile than Jason Bay. Throw in that he hasn't hit right-handers well for three years now (.234/.318/.369 against RHP in 702 at-bats), and you've got an expensive and fragile platoon player, one who doesn't bring much to the table defensively. The Mets are taking care of the expensive part, but that doesn't change the rest of the depressing equation.

That's what makes the statement of a talent evaluator, via WEEI, a little odd: said evaluator thinks Bay's issues are more mental than physical, and he's a change of scenery candidate. It's hard to argue that, as the Mets clearly didn't work out for him. But unless his mental state is causing his bones to snap and his ligaments to tighten, then it's hard to dismiss his physical issues. He might still be capable of producing when he's healthy, but how much health does Bay have to offer?

This isn't to say Boston should dismiss Bay outright. It just means that bringing him on board isn't as simple as handing him a major-league deal and hoping that yes, he does have something left to offer. Bay has suffered two concussions, and a recurrence of those problems could knock him out for an entire season, or end his career. The concussions might have been "mild", but that's a relative term: there's no such thing, in a vacuum, as "mild" brain trauma. Even without the concussions, he wasn't playing well. He might be a platoon player, he might only be relied upon for 80-100 games per year due to all of the other injuries... there's a ton of risk here, change-of-scenery candidate or not.

That's why Boston should approach this the way they did with Aaron Cook last year. Injury prone, with serious questions about his ability to continue to produce in the majors? Minor-league deal with an invite to spring training, and put an opt-in to his contract for joining the team in the majors. If he fails to work his way back to the majors through a spring training invite and some time at Pawtucket, then Boston isn't missing much, but didn't invest much of anything, either. If Bay indeed does have something left in the tank, and is willing to prove as much on this kind of deal, then Boston wins, and so does Bay. The outfielder is getting millions and millions from the Mets regardless of whether he's in the majors, minors, or baseball at all in 2013, so his risk is lessened in this situation relative to what it might normally be for a player attempting to remain relevant. If he pulls through, he'll get a more lucrative deal in the future from someone. If he doesn't, at least he still gets his Mets money.

That might seem harsh, given Bay's past with the team, but the Red Sox aren't a charity bestowing plate appearances on players who can't get them elsewhere. And if he can still be of value, that's good: given his last few years, though, he needs to prove it, and be willing to prove it. Like Cook, maybe Bay won't mind working his way back, if he knows he'll end up in a place he's happy with, surrounded by teammates and a coaching staff he expects support and assists from. If not, it's hard to see why Boston would guarantee him anything, given they have their own outfielders that have questions that need answering.

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