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Signed LF-R Jason Bay to a four-year, $63 million contract with a $17 million vesting/club option for 2014 ($3 million buyout); signed RHP R.A. Dickey, UT-L Russ Adams, INF-Rs Mike Cervenak and Andy Green, and OF-L Jesus Feliciano to minor-league contracts. [1/5]

So, it turns out the deal isn’t really all that backloaded after all, because in his deal Bay got a signing bonus of $8.5 million on top of his first-year salary of $6.5 million, so his compensation for playing baseball in 2010 adds up to $15 million, with $16 million per the next three seasons, and then a club option that vests instead should he reach 500 PAs in both 2012 and 2013, or just 600 PAs in 2013. It adds up to an Average Annual Value of $16.5 million (because of the assumption that he’ll get at least the 2014 buyout), so beyond whatever tax implications are involved, there’s nothing that changes how the contract “looks” as a paid-to-play-baseball outlay. And he’s covered by a full no-trade clause, which just gives him leverage should the whole Mets thing just get to be too much.

Which is lovely, but the question now becomes one of whether or not it’s a good idea. There are any number of reasons to suggest it isn’t, of course. There’s the big expectation, which is that Bay’s going to be a serious defensive liability starting yesterday. He certainly won’t be an asset, but it’s possible this has been overstated because, relative to Matt Holliday, he’s just not as good as the other big-name left fielder available: his Plus/Minus marks have gotten better over the last three years, and suggest he’s just not done a great job adjusting to the Green Monster, while doing fine coming in on balls. His FRAA2 has bounced from bad to horrific to adequate, while UZR sees a similar hump, going from bad to awful to still bad. You can take that as a suggestion he’s ungood, perhaps bad enough to cost his club an aggregate win on the year, and perhaps not given how general fielding statistics can be. However, some chunk of his value in any of these metrics was distorted by playing in front of the Monster: it’s easier to come in on balls hit in front of you, and it’s easier to deter baserunning feats of derring-do when you’re standing closer to the infield.

If Bay’s slower to cover the gaps than most while having a gimpy Carlos Beltran to his left, that could lead to bad things for pitchers who put a lot of balls in play. It’s not exactly the end of the world if, as the Yankees did deliberately with signing CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett last winter, you have a good chunk of your rotation not depending on ball-in-play outcomes. Johan Santana, John Maine, and Oliver Perez all do better than most in this regard, while Mike Pelfrey‘s more of a ground-ball pitcher; maybe with that kind of front four in the rotation, Bay has less opportunity to hurt you, and in the immediate future has less opportunity to hurt you.

Which brings us to the really good stuff, the batsmanship that got Bay this contract in the first place. Thanks to, last year involved several interesting little perturbations in his performance:

  • Fewer balls in play:
    Over the course of his six-year career as a big-league full-time player, Bay put a career-low 53 percent of his balls in play, almost 10 percent less frequently than he did in the two seasons previous. He also popped out more, which is interesting considering he was playing half his games in Fenway.

  • Striking out and walking more often:
    He set a career high in unintentional walk rate (14.2 percent) while reaching his highest strikeout rate since his rookie season.
  • His HR/FB rate spiked: Well, it did. To a career-high 17.3 percent.

That sounds like a TTO fantasy: more mashing or taking your base, and less bonking about with balls in play? Paging Rob Deer, we have a new graven image! OK, not quite, and to some extent a good amount of this could be league-based differences, as Bay had to generate his playing time with an extra dose of AL East rotations and against the tougher league in general. Maybe in the National League, he’ll put the ball in play more often. That doesn’t really sound like a good thing to me in Investment Banking Banditry Ballpark, however. The home-run rate’s going to go down, and maybe the infield-fly rate drops, maybe not.

A trip to the weaker league is going to help sustain him against such things, but he’s heading into his age-31 through age-34 seasons, and that’s generally not a stretch associated with improvements. His performance record over the last four years has the dip associated with his knee injuries in 2007, as his EqAs ranged from .314 in ’06 to .266 in ’07 to .310 in ’08 to .304 last year. Allowing for the knee issue having the impact it did, that seems pretty consistent, but tailing towards an incremental decline. Not to be too much of a book/spreadsheet tease, but PECOTA doesn’t like what it’s seeing, and throwing up top comparables like Dwight Evans, Jesse Barfield, Jim Rice, and Bernard Gilkey. Evans aged well deep into his 30s, and Rice retained good chunks of his fear factor after his age-30 season before getting a nasty case of the olds. Barfield and Gilkey suffered epic career failure shortly after their age-30 seasons. It likes Bay better than any of those guys, pegging him for a median EqA in the .290s, but is Dewey Evans without the defense really worth $16.5 million per year?

Obviously, in this market the answer’s ‘yes, for the Mets,’ but that doesn’t make it a good idea. It may well have been a necessary idea, and there’s still the question of whether this gives them enough punch in a lineup that’s still shy of a starting catcher, and has to mull the choice between the wrong Chris Carter and Danny Murphy at first base if they don’t charm Carlos Delgado with a one-year make-good contract. Added to the wishful thinking that Jeff Francoeur is the answer for right field, this still looks like a lineup with holes, as dropping Bay in for Delgado on offense (for the sake of argument) doesn’t radically improve matters from where they stood in 2008 (when Delgado delivered a .300 EqA), it just shores the core back up with a roughly equivalent player at a roughly equivalent salary.

Not that the market offered a solution beyond Zduriencik-level creativity via trades, but the Mets are still dependent upon health from Beltran and Jose Reyes. They certainly still can’t afford to settle for their present solutions at first and right, and still have work to do if they’re serious about avenging themselves upon the Phillies, let alone muting a Nelson Munz-like jeer from the Marlins. And if Bay ages well and isn’t a menace to rotation regulars beyond the current crew, that would represent a modest surprise.