Juan Lagares, OF
Player Data: Age: 29, B/T: R/R
Primary Stats: 30 G, 64 PA, 0 HR, 6 RBI, 3 BB, 9 K, 3/4 SB, .339/.375/.390
Advanced Stats: .392 BABIP, 112 wRC+, .329 wOBA, 118 OPS+, 1.0 bWAR, 0.6 fWAR
Free agency: 2020
2019 Salary: $9MM
Juan Lagares entered this past season running out of both time and credibility as an every day player within the organization. And as Michael Conforto made a sudden (perhaps rushed) return from the disabled list while Brandon Nimmo continued to rake out of the leadoff spot, Lagares slowly drifted into a more specialized role as a late defensive replacement and occasional pinch hitter. The once-intriguing swing adjustments (molded off similar work done on such breakthrough bats as Chris Taylor and J.D. Martinez) were suddenly moot, and the third of a four-year extension rotted with each passing day.
Though as the fleet-footed center fielder began to garner at-bats, the narrative soon perked up. His .765 OPS would have made for a career-high had he managed more than the mere 64 plate appearances, though it’s worth noting that across the same stretch of at-bats at the beginning of each season since 2015, he’d managed a far worse .622 OPS. Even with just a humble 30 games under his belt, Lagares’ 0.5 oWAR was his highest dating back to 2014.
There are nonetheless a handful of troubling statistics worth keeping an eye on regarding Lagares’ 2018. For example, he only hit .208/.259/.208 on the road, and a .664 OPS against lefties didn’t look any sexier than the .691 he’d amassed over the prior three years. What’s more, virtually none of his improvements at the plate can truly be attributed to the supposed flyball revelation (at least on a statistical level). Lagares’ groundball rate rose to a career-high of 56%, while his flyball rate fell to a career-low of 22% – and a hard-hit rate of just 23.5% does little justice in itself. It remains to be seen just how consistent a hitter Lagares can be with his newfound approach.
On defense, the story wasn’t much different from those of previous years. Anything hit in the air seemed to find its way into Lagares’ glove one way or another, as his five defensive runs saved in just 128.1 innings can confirm. Adjusted to fit a more realistic paradigm of 600 or so innings, Lagares would have recorded nine assists, and his UZR/150 of 17.2 made for the sixth-best in the league (for what it’s worth, new acquisition Keon Broxton sits at the top).
Lagares’ range runs above average dropped to a -0.9, however, most likely due to a more conservative approach to out-of-reach fly balls that, perhaps a year prior, would have been snagged on a reckless dive without skipping a beat. Of course, exercising such restraint proved to be no easy task, and after crashing into the center field fence in a 12-0 game, he tore a ligament in his toe. Again hurting himself on the frontline, Lagares would not play another game in 2018, thus leaving him with an incomplete grade.
Trading for Broxton in the first place, while not intended to replace Lagares, was surely motivated by an expectation that he would find himself on the disabled list at some point in 2019 – and perhaps for good reason.
While he is expected to report to camp on time, a total of five DL stints and an average of just 68 games played since 2016 explain much of the skepticism surrounding Lagares as a regular contributor in 2019 . Given the current starting tandem of Nimmo, Conforto, and Jeff McNeil, keeping Lagares on the bench shouldn’t hurt… though playing him frequently just might.
In terms of offensive production itself, it’s difficult to project just how much of an impact Lagares will have at the plate. An OPS between .650 and .700 ultimately makes for the fairest of assumptions given how little his approach this past year changed beyond a handful of extra hits. Figuring out either the art of hitting left-handed pitching or pinch hitting in itself will be essential in his development off the bench this coming year.
Considering Lagares has maintained enough of a reputation on the other side of the ball to remain in the conversation for everyday playing time up to this point, it’s tough to dispute his value off the bench. If he can stay healthy and find his niche at the plate, he’s a guaranteed asset.