In a chat for ESPN Insider, baseball analyst Keith Law fielded a couple of questions about the Mets including one on Juan Lagares.
Keith Law: Pretty darn good defender, better than I’d ever heard (never saw him before he reached the majors). He was 10th on my Mets prospect rankings before 2012, so he was on the radar, but spent about a decade in Savannah before he finally hit enough to move up the ladder.
Joe D: Law is right in that Lagares spent a ton of time in Savannah that included one full season and parts of three others, but there is a backstory to this that needs to be told. At the age of 17, Lagares was playing shortstop for the Mets’ Dominican Summer League. The following season at 18, he was skipped three levels (GCL, Kingsport, Brooklyn) and began the year in Single-A Savannah – a jump that he was clearly not ready for, and he was the youngest player in the league. Apparently Tony Bernazard, who made that call, was bent on rushing this raw talent up the food chain as quickly as he could. It was a bad call. Lagares remained in Savannah for the entire season and batted a disappointing .210/.262/.317 in 304 plate appearances.
In 2008 and 2009, Lagares was now being tossed all over the place, making stops at the Gulf Coast League (Rookie Ball), Brooklyn (Low-A) and eventually two more stopovers in Savannah. By the time he was ready to be promoted to Advanced-A St. Lucie, the decision was made to convert him from a shortstop to an outfielder because he was being blocked by Jose Reyes. He started a fourth season at Savannah being tested at all three outfield positions where they decided he was best suited for center field.
Ironically, he’d be moved to a corner outfield position once Matt den Dekker came along, even though many outside the organization believed Lagares was the more superior center fielder.
Lagares was mishandled almost from the very beginning and it proved to be an impingement to his development and stunted his ability to have a smooth and natural progression through the system.
In 2011, Lagares finally had his breakthrough season and batted .338/.380/.494 for Advanced-A St. Lucie and then after a promotion to Double-A Binghamton he actually improved, posting a .370/.391/.512 slash in 170 plate appearances. The rest as they say, is history.
Since his promotion to the majors in April of this season, Lagares has enjoyed steady growth at the plate and has made adjustments along the way while working with hitting coach Dave Hudgens.
After batting .234/.255/.340 in sporadic play that included week-long stretches on the bench, Lagares has finally cemented himself as the Mets regular centerfielder and he has responded with a .294/.336/.500 showing in the second half. As an everyday player and fixture in the lineup he even earned himself a National League Player of the Week honor in late July – a month that saw him post a team best .937 OPS.
Defensively, the 24-year old centerfielder is rated among the best in the majors and leads the National League with 12 outfield assists and is second in DRS (defensive runs saved) at his position despite only logging 57 games as a starter.
The Mets will have many questions going into the 2013 offseason, but center field isn’t one of them.