Last year when Brandon Nimmo missed over half of the season – and played for a month when he really shouldn’t have – the Mets struggled tremendously filling the center field position with anyone who could hit at an acceptable MLB level. MLB GMs are like generals – always fighting the last war. The Mets went out and got Jake Marisnick to play center if needed and several younger guys than they had last year to stash in the high minors who can (hopefully) handle the position offensively better than Carlos Gomez and Rajai Davis and others did a year ago.
And then Michael Conforto goes out and gets injured and now the Mets wonder who’s going to play right field.
Conforto missed time with a concussion last year and also spent some time in center field while Nimmo was out. For the most part, he was replaced by Jeff McNeil in right field. That would clearly be the best option for the 2020 Mets. The only problem is that McNeil is now the team’s starting third baseman. The Mets could move J.D. Davis to third base and go with a defensive alignment of Nimmo, Marisnick and McNeil. The big problem here is that Davis looked really bad in the infield last year.
Meanwhile, Davis has volunteered to play RF. It’s exactly what you would hope your players would do – be willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. But Davis wasn’t good in LF last year and the thought of him in the opposite corner is not a particularly good one.
In 2014, we saw noodle-armed Curtis Granderson in right field and we weren’t doing jumping jacks. So, when they signed Michael Cuddyer as a free agent for the 2015 season, the assumption was that Granderson would move to left field and Cuddyer would hold down right field, where he spent the bulk of his time playing previously.
But manager Terry Collins felt like right field in Citi Field was a difficult place to play and opted for Granderson to play there over Cuddyer, since he had more experience there. In 1,275.2 innings in RF in 2015, Granderson had a +12 DRS, so it looks like Collins made the right choice. Granderson and Jay Bruce split the position the following two seasons and the duo combined for a +5 DRS in 2016 and a +11 in 2017. The 2017 numbers are particularly striking because late in the year, Nori Aoki and Travis Taijeron held down the spot and that duo combined for a (-7) in just 276.1 innings, leading credence to Collins’ belief that RF in Citi was tough to play
Things got worse in 2018. Bruce saw the most time there but put up a (-7) DRS in 538.2 innings. Nimmo played 442 innings and put up a (-4) and Jose Bautista contributed a (-2) in 382.1 innings.
Conforto, who hadn’t played 100 innings in RF in any season prior to last year, helped put the recent team defensive ugliness in right field behind them, as he put up a league average DRS in 1,012.1 innings. And McNeil put up a +1 in 300 innings in right.
No one knows how long Conforto will be sidelined with his injury. Hopefully he’ll be ready to go sooner rather than later. If the Mets have to patch RF for just a handful of games, they’ll likely survive whoever they put out in right in his place. But if he has to miss extensive time, no one should want to see either Davis or Nimmo in right on a regular basis.
If doctors are able to determine that Conforto will need to be placed on the IL, my preference would be for McNeil to play RF and to use Eduardo Nunez at 3B. Nunez has been slowed the past few years by a knee injury but allegedly is healthy now. He’s been awful defensively the past two seasons at 3B – a downright ugly (-12) DRS in 425 innings – but in the three years prior, when the knee wasn’t an issue, he had a (-3) in 1,193 innings at the hot corner.
For a comparison, Davis had a (-9) DRS in 220 innings at third base last year.
Nunez has an .851 OPS in Grapefruit League play so far. He was not much with the bat the previous two seasons with the knee problems but in the three years before then, he had wRC+ numbers of 105, 101 and 112.
Ideally, Jed Lowrie would be able to play third base while McNeil was in right field but that doesn’t look like an option right now. Nunez offers the best chance for a replacement to be league average both offensively and defensively, assuming his knee problems are really behind him. Moving McNeil around would seem to be a less than ideal solution but McNeil has said he enjoyed the challenge of playing multiple positions last season. Since he was good at wherever they put him – that’s the type of team player you really want to have.