NEW YORK — Jay Bruce and his proven bat are headed back to the New York Mets.
The free-agent outfielder is set to return to the Big Apple after agreeing to a $39 million, three-year contract, according to two people familiar with the negotiations. The people spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday night because the deal is pending a physical and no announcement had been made.
A three-time All-Star, Bruce hit a combined .254 with 36 home runs and 101 RBIs for the Mets and Cleveland Indians last season. After falling out of playoff contention, New York traded him to the AL Central champions on Aug. 9 for minor league pitcher Ryder Ryan.
Bruce, who turns 31 on April 3, fills a hole in the outfield and brings back some much-needed power to a Mets team trying to rebound from an injury-ravaged 70-92 season. His return in right field would likely mean Michael Conforto is ticketed for center once he recovers from shoulder surgery.
With slugger Yoenis Cespedes coming off a hamstring injury in left, the Mets plan to have their top three outfielders from last year back intact. They have the potential to form a very productive trio for years to come — if they’re healthy.
Bruce’s presence provides some insurance in case Conforto isn’t ready at the beginning of the season. Bruce also offers a possible option at first base if touted prospect Dominic Smith struggles again.
The Mets made it clear this winter they were seeking an outfielder who could play first if needed, and Bruce started 10 games there last season for New York.
In a slow-developing market around the majors, Bruce’s deal would be the third-largest given to a free agent so far this offseason. First baseman Carlos Santana signed with Philadelphia for $60 million over three years, and closer Wade Davis got $52 million over three years from Colorado.
Mets fans have been clamoring for the team to spend some money to improve the club following its fourth-place finish in the NL East. To this point, New York’s biggest move had been the $14 million, two-year contract it gave to free-agent reliever Anthony Swarzak.
“I’m happy,” Mets ace Noah Syndergaard tweeted Wednesday night, with a “wackyBruce” hashtag.
Bruce was obtained by the Mets from Cincinnati for a pair of prospects on Aug. 1, 2016. He slumped badly down the stretch that year until finally going on a tear during the final week of the season to help New York secure a wild card for its second consecutive playoff appearance.
The following offseason, many questioned whether the Texas native who had previously spent his entire professional career with the Reds could handle the New York spotlight. It was expected Bruce would be traded to clear a logjam in the outfield, but he remained with the Mets and flourished (.841 OPS) for the first four months of 2017 while emerging as a respected leader in the locker room during a miserable season for the team.
New York began the year with great expectations that were quickly derailed by long-term injuries to Syndergaard, Cespedes and others. By the summer, general manager Sandy Alderson had traded away several pending free agents — Bruce among them — in an effort to shed payroll and acquire young arms.
After being sent to Cleveland, however, Bruce said he enjoyed his time in New York and was open to coming back. He said his familiarity with the Mets and the city could make a difference in his decision.
Bruce is a .249 career hitter with 277 homers and 838 RBIs in 10 big league seasons.
Terms of the agreement were first reported by ESPN.