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The Big Red Steal

February 15, 2011

Bruuuuuce!

On December 9th, the Cincinnati Reds agreed to a six-year, $51 million deal with Bruce, a contract almost exactly the same as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ agreement with the slightly-younger Justin Upton last March (six years, $51.25 million).

And for some strange reason, the Reds’ multi-year signing of the fan favorite made almost no news. Well, in Cincinnati it did. But nationally, it was something of an afterthought next to the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez mega-contracts, the Cliff Lee Sweepstakes, and the usual merry-go-round of veteran bats jumping teams.To be sure, Baseball Prospectus had a good piece (subscription required) on the win-win nature of the deal, but it really should be underlined: the Reds made out like fucking bandits. Maybe not as big as the Rays, who locked up Evan Longoria on April 18th, 2008, who at that point had six games as a major-leaguer under his belt, for $17.5 million over six years (with options on three subsequent years). But big. Possibly really big.

Bruce’s 2010 was enough for Cincy to give the young outfielder (he turns 24 in April) the gold. Defensively, Bruce was great the entire season. Though most fans will remember his costly error in the NLDS against the Phillies when he lost a ball in the lights at Citizens’ Bank Park, Bruce finished second out of all rightfielders to Ichiro in John Dewan’s Fielding Bible Awards; led the NL in Dewan’s plus/minus system with +24 (he made 24 more plays than an average right fielder would); led the league with 17 Runs Saved; and scored an NL fifth-best 1.5 defensive wins above replacement, behind Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan, Justin Upton, and Yadier Molina.

Offensively, Bruce made big strides. With the exception of his slumpicious July, he increased his batting average every month, and was as hot as any player in the National League in August and September. He put up a second-half OPS of .951, hitting 15 homers in the last two months alone, including a walk-off dinger to clinch a playoff berth for the Reds in the last week of the season. His slugging percentage was almost two hundred points higher at home, but that’s to be expected; the Great American Bandbox is a hitters’ park. The biggest thing Bruce did this past season was learn to hit lefties. And hit them he did — his BA and OBP are virtually the same versus both righties and southpaws, but his slugging was crazily almost 80 points better against lefties.

Bruce was a Super Two free agent going into this offseason The main thing the Reds did was buy out Bruce’s arbitration years of 2011 and 2012; even taking into consideration his inability to hit the market by only being eligible for arbitration, Baseball Prospectus estimates Bruce’s value over the next six years at $75 million, $24 million than he’ll actually be paid. And he’ll be in his prime – not even 30 yet – when he does hit the free agent market in December 2016.

The actual breakdown of Bruce’s salary will be $2.75 million this coming season, $5 in 2012, $7.5 in 2013, $10 in 2014, $12 each in 2015 and 2016. AND the Reds have a $13 million option for 2017, when, as we all know, money will grow on trees, and the Major League minimum will be a bajillion yuan.

While projections minutely disagree for this coming season (ZiPS foresees a slight decrease across the board; ever the optimist, Bill James sees a slight increase; Sports Illustrated calls him a breakout candidate), it’s probable that by 2013, Bruce will be one of the most undervalued players in the league as per his actual worth. Call me obscenely bullish, but his defense through his 20s with even a modest increase on his pretty good slash line of this past season will make Bruce one of the most valuable outfielders in the National League through the better half of this decade.

FanGraphs compared the CarGo and Bruce extensions back in January, coming to the conclusion that while CarGo may continue to be the better offensive weapon, there’s no question that Bruce will be the defensive star. While both players were lauded tools-wise in their minor league days (the Baseball America prospect lists ranked Bruce at #1 and CarGo at #22 in 2008; and Bruce at #14 and CarGo at #18 in 2007), there were more questions about Gonzalez’s attention. The 2007 BA handbook noted “(Gonzalez) didn’t always hustle last season, but he apologized after an early-season benching and played hard the rest of the way;” and in 2008, noted “Scouts and managers often have been turned off by Gonzalez’s approach to the game, accusing him of giving away at-bats or not hustling at times.”

That kind of knock on a player is usually a product of, well, sometimes, inherent racism against Latino players, but more regarding the player’s youth. And at this point, it seems safe to say that CarGo has proved his worth. Bruce, on the other hand, has long been admired for his demeanor. In this 2008 Sports Illustrated piece, the Reds’ Double-A manager Rick Sweet is quoted saying, “What impressed me most (about Bruce) was his opposite-field power. The other thing was how he went about the game—always having fun, always a smile on his face. Just like Junior.”

Regardless of those intangibles, it’s both probable and possible that Bruce’s value will be better and cheaper than CarGo’s – and soon.

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