If you recently became a fan of the Mets, particularly since May 16th 2018, then you may not be familiar with Juan Lagares. It is because the oft-injured center fielder has been on and off the disabled list over the past three seasons, appearing in fewer than 100 games in each of them. May 16th of last year is when a foot injury ended his season.
Now to the other 99% of us that chose to follow this team some time long before their horrific 2018 May-June slumber, Lagares is a well-known exciting player to watch, that is with a glove in his hand.
Not long ago I would be freaking out during a heart attack-inducing Jeurys Familia save opportunity until a ball was hit anywhere to the middle of the outfield, because I knew the converted shortstop would effortlessly drop back and make the put out. He plays so far in he rarely has to run forward to catch a ball, which is most certainly not the easy way to do it.
In 2017 Lagares led National League center fielders with 15 Defensive Runs Saved in just under 100 games. He also led the majors in average UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) for all players with at least 300 innings. He posted similar numbers in 2013 when he had 15 outfield assists (before teams learned to not run on him) and then also had similar numbers in 2014 during his Gold Glove season.
Many were uncomfortable with the thought of little protection to Lagares, but the weekend addition of Keon Broxton solved this. Which defensive-minded right-handed center fielder starts in DC on March 28th remains to be seen, but let’s take a look at what Lagares might give the Mets if employed in center.
FanGraphs’ Steamer projections have Lagares playing in just shy of a half season which would be unfortunate, but understandable given the recent injury history for the 29 year old. Even in that short time one would think he would provide terrific value in the field, so let’s take a look at the other side of the game.
Last season in 64 PA he posted a .339/.375/.390 slash line which shows some hope he can produce above his career relatively light-hitting numbers; however those small sample size numbers came with a BABIP of .392, showing extreme fortune.
His career numbers of a .260 AVG with a low OBP and a high K% are probably more reasonable. These numbers leave much to be desired, but perhaps the new swing he developed last spring training led to his improved contact.
Either way, his defense alone makes him an important player. The best hope for Lagares is that he is able to make his spectacular plays while avoiding injuring himself in the process, and make enough contact to be productive in the lineup. Mickey Callaway also appeared to favor defense in the early going of last year, writing Lagares’ name in the lineup often over Brandon Nimmo.
My feeling is that these hopes will hold true, and the new management trot out to center their defensive stud to protect the strong pitching staff.