By Brad Kallet
» More Columns
One was a disappointing youngster coming off a nightmarish sophomore season, fighting for a spot that he realistically didn’t have.
The other was a veteran slugger from a small-market club, having spent the previous nine years in obscurity in a bandbox of a ballpark.
A little more than a month into what has been, by any measure, a disastrous start to the season, they’re unsung heroes and unquestionably the two best players on the Mets right now.
Could you imagine?
Conforto, 24, had a monster April in 2016 and looked primed to break out. A star in the making, he was hitting everything in sight. After some struggles against lefties, he went into a tailspin. He lost his job as the starting left fielder, his average dipped to .130, and by late June he was wasting away in Triple-A Las Vegas. The final line in his first full season? A .220 average with 12 homers, 42 RBIs, 89 strikeouts and a .310 on-base percentage in 109 games. More alarming than his numbers was his sudden fall from grace, and the possibility that maybe 2015 was nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
Bruce was a different story. A three-time All-Star and two-time Silver Slugger Award winner, he was acquired by general manager Sandy Alderson at the trade deadline for infield prospect Dilson Herrera and a minor-league pitcher. Reviews of the trade were mixed. Many Mets fans hated parting ways with Herrera, a promising young player, and envisioned Bruce being just another so-called power hitter who would be exposed in the big city and in the imposing dimensions of Citi Field.
Fans were just waiting for him to fail, and fail spectacularly he did. In 50 games with New York, the 30-year-old hit just .219 with eight homers, 19 RBIs, 43 strikeouts and a .294 OBP.
In the fall and winter months, the duo garnered headlines for all the wrong reasons. Conforto was panned for his inability to hit lefties and his missed opportunity in the Mets’ outfield. He was also the odd man out: With Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson and Bruce entrenched out there, and with Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo on the bench, where would Conforto find at-bats? You couldn’t justify starting him, and pinch-hitting him — limiting his plate appearances drastically — would surely hinder his development.
Bruce’s offseason was even rockier. Fans, talk-radio hosts, television commentators and newspaper columnists urged Alderson to deal Bruce for bullpen help, and Alderson didn’t hide the fact that he was looking to do just that. There was constant chatter that Bruce wasn’t fit for New York and would be a Jason Bay-esque disaster. (Even their initials are the same!)
But the script turned on its head quickly right before Opening Day. Nimmo and Lagares landed on the disabled list, and Conforto had a spot on the roster, albeit on the bench. He played here and there and delivered some clutch hits, but still didn’t have a spot in the outfield. Then, as it always does, injury struck. The inevitable bug landed on Cespedes, sidelining him, and Conforto took his spot, occasionally playing left field and seeing some time in center. With Jose Reyes mired in a slump, manager Terry Collins opted to slot the contact-prone Conforto into the leadoff slot.
The former first-round pick has taken his chance and run wild with it. New York’s best hitter through the first month and change, he’s batting .357 with seven home runs, 18 RBIs and a .427 OBP in 70 at-bats. If Granderson doesn’t get his act together when Cespedes returns from the DL, he’ll likely land on the bench. The way Conforto is swinging the bat, he’s not going anywhere.
Bruce, with more pressure on him than Conforto considering his track record and role as a middle-of-the-order presence, has exceeded expectations as a premier run producer. Booed in the season opener, as unthinkable as that is, the big man has thrived in the face of adversity. He’s tied for third in the National League in homers with nine — his 10th blast on Thursday was for naught when the game was ultimately postponed — is putting up terrific at-bats and is using the whole field, even having some success against lefties. With a respectable .291 average and .371 OBP, he’s far from all or nothing at the plate. With Cespedes, the Mets’ most important player and most dangerous threat, out of the lineup, Bruce has shouldered the power load and kept the team afloat in his absence.
In one month, an alleged underachieving nomad and a perceived over-the-hill compiler turned into a gap-hitting leadoff man and a moonshot-bashing cleanup hitter.
There hasn’t been a ton to cheer for so far this season, but that’s certainly something to clap about.
Brad Kallet is the managing editor of TENNIS.com and a frequent contributor to WFAN.com. Follow him on Twitter @brad_kallet