The Mets’ outfield now has an open slot since the trading of Jay Bruce to Cleveland. Yoenis Cespedes plays in left field (when healthy) and Michael Conforto has shuttled some between center field and right field. Curtis Granderson and Brandon Nimmo have been splitting time in the other outfield position. There is now a different player in the mix, fielding whiz Juan Lagares, fresh off the disabled list.
Lagares should be playing every day in center field for the rest of the season. He needs to be batting against both right-handed and left-handed pitching for the remainder of 2017, and if he succeeds, pencil him in as the opening day center fielder in 2018.
Lagares has been with the Mets since 2013, and there has never been a question about his defense, it is dazzling at times. He has great range, great instincts and a strong, accurate arm. He has a lifetime MLB UZR rating of 56.8 according to FanGraphs, and of course he won a Gold Glove in 2014. He has missed significant time to injury during his tenure, especially last season and this season.
His offense over his career has been more problematic. His slash line for this season, in 49 games, is .266/.314/.404, and that’s not going to bowl anyone over. But in June, in a small sample, he was batting more like Mike Trout with a slash line of .355/.344/.581. The BA is higher than the OBP because he had a sacrifice fly, which is counted in the OBP but not the BA.
That sample was so small in June because he fractured his thumb on a diving attempt to make a catch, sending him to the DL. That is the way Lagares plays… he goes all out when he is on the field.
It would really be beneficial if Lagares could work on his patience at the plate for the rest of the year, he does not draw many walks. An improvement in OBP combined with his above average speed could result in him batting leadoff, a place in the batting order that the Mets have had trouble with at times over the past few years.
Lagares put up good numbers in the 2015 post-season and seemed poised to get a full time role in 2016, however the Mets somewhat surprisingly managed to lock up Cespedes on a long term deal, blocking Lagares. Then in 2016, Bruce was acquired at the trade deadline, putting yet another obstacle in Lagares’ path.
Granderson is a fine clubhouse presence, but he is 36 and his best days are behind him. The Mets have been actively trying to trade him, and his contract does expire at the end of the season. Nimmo does not have much power, and seems better suited to be a fourth outfielder than a starter.
Lagares is 28 years old, an age that is right in the prime for baseball players. If he can get extensive playing time for the rest of the year and keep his batting somewhat close to his June offensive production, he could be a real force for the Mets, perhaps for years to come.