Conforto taking cues from Bruce, if not at-bats

Young right fielder is learning from similar lefty slugger Mets acquired from Reds

February 23rd, 2017
"The situation is a tough situation," Michael Conforto said, of competing with Jay Bruce to be the Mets' starting RF. "But it doesn't do anything to our personal relationship." (Getty/AP)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Welp, this is awkward. Or at least, it would be, if the personalities involved were as unstable as the situation itself.

But in the Mets' clubhouse, the fact that is blocking from getting the kind of developmental opportunity Bruce himself got long ago with the Reds hasn't prevented the pair from developing a mentor/mentee relationship.

"The situation is a tough situation," Conforto said Thursday. "But it doesn't do anything to our personal relationship. We talk about how he came up and had struggles against lefties in the big leagues and how you just have to be in there and work through it. As a teammate, he hopes I get the reps I need to get comfortable."

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The way things stand, there is not much realistic hope for Conforto to get Conforto-ble.

This offseason, the Mets picked up Bruce's $13 million option to buffer themselves against the possibility of walking. But Cespedes stayed, Bruce proved untradeable in a market loaded with corner bats and, well, here we are, with Conforto drawing the short straw on the depth chart. Nothing short of a bounceback season from Bruce, whose All-Star first half morphed into a pungent post-trade performance in Queens, will make stunting Conforto's development worthwhile.

For as many ups and downs as Conforto endured in 2016, his overall performance against right-handers (.242/.336/.469 with 12 homers and 20 doubles in 295 plate appearances) was respectable. It's his invisibility against lefties that continues to be his bugaboo.

But this is not at all unusual for a young left-handed power hitter.

Over the course of 2015 and '16, Conforto, who turns 24 next week, has faced a lefty 68 times and turned in a measly .129/.191/.145 slash line. During his '08 rookie season, Bruce, then 21, faced more lefties, but didn't fare a great deal better: he had a .190/.263/.299 slash line.

Bruce, though, didn't endure those struggles under the glare of the New York spotlight and in the pulse of a pennant race. He improved his OPS against lefties from .562 to .643 in his sophomore season. And then, in 2010, Bruce broke out as a complete player, with a .277/.352/.547 slash line against southpaws, punctuated by his walk-off homer off lefty Tim Byrdak that clinched the Reds' first division title in 15 years.

"I had the luxury of playing for a not-so-good team," Bruce said. "They were just going to let me play. That was the difference. [Conforto] is a little older than I was, so I'm sure there's more urgency for him to play well, so it's tough. But things work themselves out."

Bruce worked out his issues at the big-league level. Will Conforto be afforded similar opportunity at the outset of 2017?

The very idea of Conforto starting the season in Triple-A -- a level where he raked in 33 games last year -- has already caused public outcry from Conforto's agent, Scott Boras. But for now, everyone involved is letting evolution take its course. Conforto will get opportunities against lefties in Grapefruit League and Minor League games here. Bruce, meanwhile, is taking ground balls at first base to possibly prove himself a viable backup option to . And we of course can't rule out the possibility of an injury elsewhere allowing the Mets to move Bruce, as they certainly tried to do this offseason.

"I'm here until I'm not," Bruce said.

The Mets' acquisition of Bruce last Aug. 1 proved the polar opposite of their Cespedes acquisition one year earlier. Bruce's .219/.294/.391 slash line in 50 games was not at all what the Mets had signed up for, though Bruce wasn't exactly in his comfort zone at the time.

Bruce had picked out an Upper East Side apartment based on misleading online photos, discovering upon arrival that the place, with brown water coming out of the faucets, dirt and buckling floors, was essentially uninhabitable for his family. So his wife, Hannah, and 4-month-old son, Carter, stayed back home for the remainder of the season while Bruce lived in six Manhattan hotel rooms on homestands.

"I'm a routine guy, and I didn't have one," Bruce said. "It was just not a good situation. Of course, that doesn't make an excuse for me not playing well."

No, but it serves as a reminder of the human side of the equation. And here at Mets camp, the human side stands out again.

Bruce and Conforto are genuinely rooting for each other. So much can still happen between now and Opening Day on the injury front, on the trade front, on the performance front. But at the very least, the Mets' crowded outfield doesn't come with a side of clubhouse discord.

"Everyone's working to get to that spot to make the team better," Conforto said. "That competition can only help us."