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Jay Bruce makes it to Yankees, 3 1/2 years later than he thought

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts

Feb 26, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; New York Yankees outfielder Jay Bruce (30) smiles during spring training workouts at George M. Steinbrenner Field Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Bruce made it to the New York Yankees, 3 1/2 years later than he first thought.

Bruce had just reached a Philadelphia hotel room after a train ride that followed a hitless afternoon in the New York Mets’ loss to Texas at Citi Field on Aug. 9, 2017. He was with his family and hearing talk he was about to be dealt to the Yankees. Then that swap fell through and he was sent to Cleveland for minor league pitcher Ryder Ryan.

“I wanted to go somewhere I had an opportunity to win a World Series,” he recalled.

Two weeks later, Cleveland started a winning streak that extended for an American League-record 22 games.

“So I was extremely happy being in Cleveland. I would have been extremely happy being in New York,” Bruce said Friday at spring training in Tampa, Florida. “That’s why I absolutely picked the Yankees now, because I want to win the World Series.”

Bruce agreed this month to a minor league contract that would pay a $1.35 million salary while in the major leagues and $150,000 while in the minors. If he’s not added to the 40-man roster by March 25, he would have the right to opt out.

He is hoping to earn an outfield job at age 33 on a team that projects to start eight right-handed hitters most days along with switch-hitting center fielder Aaron Hicks.

But one fewer roster spot remains open after 37-year-old outfielder Brett Gardner finalized a $5.15 million, two-year contract this week to return for a 14th season in the Bronx.

“I’m not sure if it would have affected my decision at all,” Bruce said. “I’m excited to finally get to play with Brett. He’s someone that I came up with kind of playing against. And we’ve been in the big leagues together since 2008. And he’s someone that I’ve always admired, even being an older player. He’s stayed in great shape and he’s been a productive, extremely productive player and a great Yankee.”

“And so to be on that side with him now is something that I definitely appreciate and look forward to - hopefully getting to know him a lot better and, gaining a better understanding as to why he is able to stay healthy and do all those things that he’s still able to do.”

A three-time All-Star while with Cincinnati from 2008-16, Bruce was traded to the Mets in 2016, then re-signed with the Mets ahead of the 2018 season for a $39 million, three-year contract. He was traded to Seattle in December 2018 as part of the trade that brought Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to the Mets, then was dealt to Philadelphia the following June.

Bruce slumped to a .216 average, 29 homers and 59 RBIs in 2019, then hit .198 with six homers and 14 RBIs in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

“I think it’s all health related,” he said. “I think that if I’m healthy, I’m myself. And I think that’s the biggest key. Last year I had a couple soft tissue injuries. The year before I had kind of a freak elbow deal. And if I’m healthy and I’m on the field, yeah, I think that my number, my track record shows that I am a viable option, that I can help any team out there.”

Clint Frazier has taken over as the Yankees’ starting left fielder this year, joining Hick and right fielder Aaron Judge. Gardner figured to get significant at-bats, and manager Aaron Boone says he hopes to shift Giancarlo Stanton from designated hitter to the outfield at times.

That leaves Bruce trying to beat out Michael Tauchman, a left-handed hitter with speed, and Estevan Florial for an outfield berth.

“I view my role as someone who has the ability to play both corners of the outfield, to play first base, DH when needed and provide the left-handed power that the Yankees have been looking for,” Bruce said.

NOTES: The Yankees intend to cut their first three or four exhibition games to seven innings under COVID-19 protocols. RHP Michael King is to start Sunday against Toronto in Tampa. ... RHP Gerrit Cole and RHP Jameson Taillon are to pitch Monday against Detroit, also in Tampa. ... Boone plans to start most of his regulars in the first few exhibition games except for Stanton and Gardner, who probably will be held out of the first few games.