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Jay Bruce’s return to Cincinnati was another reminder of what could have been

Jay Bruce’s return to Cincinnati this week was difficult to watch for more reasons than just because his former club was swept, losing three in a row with nary a whimper.

It was difficult to watch because the July trade deadline deal itself that sent Bruce to the New York Mets represented so much more than just the swap of a former All-Star outfielder for a pair of minor league prospects.

In fact, Bruce’s return to Cincinnati, to the team that drafted him, and the club on which he spent his first eight big league seasons, was another stark reminder of could have been, but wasn’t. So it goes anytime any of the Reds’ former stars returns to the place he started.

Last year’s trades of starting rotation stalwarts Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake were clear indications of the team’s intended direction: trade away cost prohibitive veterans in exchange for emerging and versatile prospects with years’ of team control.

The club made every effort to trade second baseman Brandon Phillips last winter. All-star third baseman and Home Run Derby champion Todd Frazier in fact was moved to the White Sox in December.

jay_bruce_on_august_2_2016_croppedJuly’s trade of Bruce was long a foregone conclusion as soon as this season went south. A deal, any deal, was made even more likely by the fact that Bruce was tracking to meet or exceed career bests in about every major offensive category, sabermetrics or otherwise.

Just because we knew by the second week in May that Bruce would be traded to a CCINOLHP (Contending Club In Search Of Left-Handed Power) doesn’t make it any easier when the longtime Redleg is actually dealt; nor does it make it any easier when he returns to patrol right field in Great American Ballpark wearing another team’s colors.

And no, it doesn’t matter to me that in 113 at-bats as a Metropolitan Bruce is batting barely a blooper over .200 with four homeruns and an OPS that would be the lowest of his career over a full season, by a long shot. In two games and eight plate appearances in his return to Cincinnati, Bruce struck out (3) more times than he reached base (1). Though, I bet it matters to Mets fans right now quite a lot.

I remember where I was Sept. 28, 2010 when a 23-year-old Bruce smacked a walkoff homerun over the center field wall to clinch a National League Central Division title and secure the Reds’ first playoff appearance in almost a decade. I likewise recall my whereabouts Sept. 22, 2012 when Bruce kicked off the scoring with a solo homer to right in a game the Reds would go on to win 6-0 to clinch what was then the club’s second NL Central championship in three years.

Each of those seasons of course went on to end in heartbreak in their own way. And a generally uninspired performance in a 2013 wildcard playoff game in Pittsburgh was among the earlier signs that for all the good memories, the core of this club wasn’t going to deliver a World Series championship.

Now, in 2016 I guess the current stage of grief is acceptance; acceptance that it’s time to move on, and look ahead to what is to come.

In fact, Adam Duvall, the team’s only All-Star this year was a product of the Leake trade. Jose Peraza, acquired in conjunction with the Frazier deal, has hit .347 over 150 at-bats since a June promotion from AAA Louisville. Left-handed starter Brandon Finnegan has proven himself a reliable starter since he arrived from Kansas City as part of the Cueto trade.

Still, questions linger about the direction of this rebuild. The long-term health of Homer Bailey; how to handle dynamic Cuban pitching prospects Raisel Iglesias and Vladimir Gutierrez; and whether or not to try again and trade Phillips this offseason are persistent uncertainties.

So, with all that as a backdrop one of those former cogs returned to the place where he made his MLB debut. Fans may have cheered when the new, promising young aces Robert Stephenson or Finnegan struck Bruce out, but a longing for what could have been boils just beneath the surface.

At least until we reap the fruits of this latest rebuild.

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