Despite their second consecutive losing season, the New York Mets have an eye toward competing for a playoff spot in 2019. There’s a solid core in place with regard to the starting rotation (Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler) and a handful of significant pieces on the position player side of the house (Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo), but they’re going to need a little more than that.
As we touched on last week, the current roster has a few big holes that must get upgraded this winter in order for these designs of playoff contention to feel even somewhat realistic. The direction in which the front office ultimately goes won’t be known until Sandy Alderson’s replacement is found. However, we certainly have an idea if ownership continues being more involved in day-to-day decisions than they should be.
The outfield performed admirably as a unit in 2018 thanks to contributions from Conforto and Nimmo, but center field is a position that will likely need some of New York’s attention this offseason. Due to the current mix of players and probable unwillingness to commit the dollars necessary to nab a player like A.J. Pollock, any kind of external addition will be a minor one as a fourth-outfielder-type of player.
That assumption makes Juan Lagares‘ presence in the final guaranteed year of his contract all the more important to not just the Mets’ outfield situation, but it’ll also impact what they can conceivably do at first base.
The Outfield Situation
Any team built on starting pitching needs to also at least have a serviceable defense. This has alluded the Mets in recent years, and it’s something manager Mickey Callaway pointed out in August. Nimmo and Conforto each have experience playing center field and have held their own, but in an ideal world, both are better suited for one of the corner spots.
When it comes to defense, well, that’s basically why Lagares earned the contract he’s currently on. The 2014 Gold Glove winner has accumulated 82 Defensive Runs Saved since debuting in 2013, which is tied with Lorenzo Cain for the second-most among center fielders during that time.
There’s no question that the best defensive version of New York’s outfield includes Lagares in the middle of everything, but Callaway and his staff will also have to weigh his potential offensive contributions. That’s where things can get complicated.
The First Base Situation
If Lagares ends up being viewed as a defensive asset that’s used as a platoon player, it’ll at least allow Jay Bruce some sort of consistent playing time in right field. But if the Mets feel comfortable using Lagares in a more regular role, it’d likely push Bruce to first base, blocking Peter Alonso from having a truly meaningful opportunity to make an impact (and maybe Dominic Smith, too).
With the way this roster is currently constructed — and the unlikelihood of any spots opening up prior to next March — New York’s approach with the outfield will have a direct effect on how first base is handled. This is probably yet another area where there won’t be any significant external upgrades, as well (let’s hope the Mets use what budget they have on remaking the bullpen and upgrading at catcher, but that’s for another day).
So, this is certainly a tough situation to navigate. I’d love to see Lagares’ glove in center more regularly because of how the pitching staff would benefit, but I’d also love to see Alonso get a shot in the big leagues because it doesn’t seem as if he has anything left to prove in the minors.
Can Lagares Handle It?
One of the big things concerning Lagares this past season — before the season-ending injury, that is — was the new-and-improved swing he brought with him to Spring Training. Like a many others before him, he worked on changing his swing path in order to lift the baseball more often.
The initial returns looked positive in the 64 plate appearances prior to getting injured, as his wRC+ (112), wOBA (.329), and strikeout rate (14.1%) were all on pace to be career-best marks. However, his .339/.375/.390 triple slash felt empty, as it produced just a .051 ISO and two total extra-base hits (one double and one triple).
Lagares isn’t magically going to turn into J.D. Martinez with a couple swing adjustments, but the peripherals didn’t exactly match the work he put into changing his plate approach. His 56.0% ground-ball rate was on pace to be a career-worst mark, while his 25.5% pull rate, 25.5% soft-hit rate, and 23.5% hard-hit rate also didn’t look overly promising.
The sample is very small and should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s certainly something to consider moving forward. The Mets’ probable course of action (or, more like general inaction) over the upcoming months will make this a decision that has to be made during Grapefruit League action, and it’ll have various moving parts due to player performances.
Next season will be crucial for the Mets for obvious reasons, but it’ll be one last shot for Lagares to prove he’s worth the $9.5 million club option in his contract for the 2020 season. There’s plenty at stake, and how New York’s defensive-minded center fielder returns next spring could have a domino effect on a couple important parts of the roster.