If everything had gone according to plan for Jason Bay and the Mets, he’d be starring in New York for a contending team right now.
Instead, he’s looking to stay healthy for the first time since 2009 as a part-time player with the Seattle Mariners.
After three injury-filled seasons in New York, Bay parted ways with the Mets and signed in Seattle without guarantees that he would have a spot on the roster. As it turned out, he liked the challenge of earning his place on the team.
“It was something different,” Bay said Sunday. “Definitely something I hadn’t had to do before. Actually I kind of enjoyed in a weird way just as far as I felt like everything in spring training was predicated on me. There were no external factors dictating it. If I deserved to be here I would be here. If I didn’t I wasn’t going to be here. I liked that.”
Bay performed during the spring and made the team. So far he has justified the Mariners’ decision to keep him.
The 34-year-old has produced at the plate with his new team, hitting three home runs and posting a .262/.355/.446 batting line. Manager Eric Wedge has used Bay against left-handed pitching as often as possible while resting him against many right-handers.
The three-time All-Star who signed a $66 million contract just three years ago has become a role player.
“I’m kind of a complementary piece to this puzzle in here, and I feel like as long as I’m hitting I’ll be playing,” Bay said.
From 2004-09, Bay was anything but a complementary player. He averaged 30 home runs per season for that six-year period, posting an .894 OPS.
Then, six months after signing a four-year, $66 million contract with the Mets, Bay crashed into the outfield wall at Dodger Stadium. He suffered a concussion and missed the second half of the season.
The next two years didn’t go much better for Bay, who missed considerable time with rib injuries and suffered a second concussion.
He hit just 26 home runs in three seasons with the Mets, and after the 2012 season the sides negotiated the early expiration of his contract with one year remaining on the deal.
“Unfortunately, the results weren’t there and we are in a results-oriented business,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson said at the time.
Bay acknowledges that his time with the Mets went poorly — “I went to New York and things didn’t go very well for me” — and the team would surely agree.
The Mets won 79 games in 2010, 77 games in 2011 and 74 games in 2012. Off-field drama often surrounded the organization, which fired general manager Omar Minaya and faced major financial troubles during Bay’s three seasons in New York.
By the time the 2012 season ended it was time for a change of pace.
Bay, a Trail, British Columbia native, has lived in Seattle for six years. His wife is from Seattle and one of his three children now goes to school there. Once he hit free agency he was drawn to the possibility of playing for the Mariners.
“I’d be lying to say it wasn’t a factor,” he said. “But at the same time there’s a lot of guys who like to play close to home in a certain situation and there has to be a need, there has to be a mutual interest.”
Fortunately for Bay, the Mariners were intrigued. General manager Jack Zduriencik saw a player with a history of success against big league pitching and, finally, relatively good health. A few other teams offered Bay more playing time, but the Mariners expressed strong interest and signed Bay to a one-year contract worth $1 million plus incentives.
“He’s been through a lot,” Zduriencik said. “I think more than anything the fact that he’s healthy I think is a big factor. He has worked his tail off this winter to prepare himself for a good year and he made the club.”
Once he arrived in spring training Bay had to stand out among a group of players that included recently-acquired corner outfielders and designated hitters such as Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales. After two concussions and four stints on the disabled list in three seasons, Bay wasn’t going to have a roster spot handed to him.
“It all fell on me and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “I was in a situation where it did [depend on me] and like I said I was comfortable with that at this point in my career and I kind of relished it a little bit.”
Bay said he made a conscious effort at the beginning of the year to understand his new role. The uncertainty over his future allowed him to focus on the field rather than on outside expectations.
“I wasn’t one of those guys that was bitter about it, like ‘oh I should be given this or that,’” Bay said. “I think that happens and in my situation, I just kind of embraced the role that I knew coming in and I actually kind of liked it a little bit.”