It’s hard to remember just how good Jason Bay used to be. Bay, a veteran outfielder who signed a four-year pact with the often misguided Mets before the start of the 2012 season, has agreed with the New York team to simply go his own way now. He’ll still get the money owed to him, but now it’s up to him to find a new home. Bay was quoted as saying he still has plenty left in the tank, plenty left to off a new team, but that’s hard to believe. For too long the outfielder has been tangled up in constant disabled list transactions, and when he’s on the field he seems fragile and broken.
I’m very doubtful Bay, still just 34, will ever catch on somewhere and find a meaningful role to call his own. His bat is slower, hit legs aren’t really even legs anymore, and signing somewhere certainly doesn’t mean that playing time is guaranteed. Bay’s career has certainly been derailed by a myriad of injuries, but it’s worth taking a moment to look back at what kind of player Bay once was. He was an undercover star for a long time, and it’s tragic that he didn’t get to step onto the big stage until after he’d been diminished at an early age.
Jason Bay started out as a hopeful Padres prospect at the age of 24 in 2003. Bay was already considered a legitimate hitter, and he did the most he could with the 107 PA he was given that season. Bay hit a ridiculous .287/.421/.529 with four homers in his brief cup of coffee, quickly showing that he had the power and patience scouts had claimed him to possess. After a trade to the Pirates, Bay just kept on hitting. Bay’s defense was certainly shaky, but his speed gave analysts hope for improvement, and he did manage to get steadily better before a series of injuries to his legs made him look a lot more like an extremely large lawn gnome in the outfield than an actual living, breathing baseball player.
Seriously, though, Bay was always on the verge of something huge. In 2004, he posted a .382 wOBA and whacked 26 homers in just 472 PA. That partial season was worth about 2.0 WAR per FanGraphs, but it paled in comparison to what he would do in 2005. Bay just raked in ’05, hitting .306/.402/.559 with 32 home runs and 21 steals. While his defense still needed work, Bay had managed to become one of the best hitters in the league and earn a reputation as an excellent base runner as well. Bay was worth 6.1 WAR that season, and he pretty much held up his proficiency the next season. Bay’s 2006 included a walk rate near 15%, 35 home runs, and even a positive fielding review from UZR. Things were looking up.
But then, just as quickly as he came, Jason Bay receded back into the darkness thanks to unfailing injury problems and random aches and pains. Bay was able to cobble together a mostly complete season in 2007, but perhaps he shouldn’t have. The Pirates outfielder hit a paltry .247/.327/.418 and was panned by advanced metrics both in the field and on the bases. Things had bottomed out for Bay at the age of 28 right when he was supposed to be hitting his stride.
Bay recovered somewhat in 2008, and his fast start earned him a trade to the contending Boston Red Sox. With the Sox, Bay did plenty at the plate for a year and a couple of months. Bay posted a near-.900 OPS for the Bo Sox in his two 2008 months, and then he set a career high with 36 homers in 2009 while logging an OPS+ mark of 134 (average is 100, and this metric gauges a player against others at his position). Bay was still hitting, but his knee problems continued to downgrade his mobility.
The Mets apparently believed Bay, still only 30 at the time, was going to shun the injury bug and finish out his career productively. Their gamble obviously went awry, and Bay only topped 500 PA once in three New York years. Bay’s injuries simply caught up with him a lot sooner than anyone would have liked. Bay seems to be a genuinely nice guy, and he was a lot of fun to watch during his prime when he was a threat to go deep, take a walk, or steal a base any time he wanted. It would be great if Bay was right that he still has some of his former self left to use, but memories are probably the best thing we have when it comes to remembering Bay at his best.