Hey MMO readers, let’s open some reader mail! What’s that? There’s no reader mail? Well then it’s time for the first of what I’m going to call my “self-mailbags,” where I address the questions that have been weighing on the minds of some very important Mets fans in my life: Me, Myself and I. And while the Mets community is abuzz with our newly minted acquisition of an elite closer and an all-time great second baseman, my first attempt at his exercise takes us to the outfield:
The Question: Should the Mets Replace Lagares With Hamilton?
I’m not the first person in the MMO community to wonder about whether Billy Hamilton might fit on the Mets. John Edwards posted an article the other day when the Reds non-tendered their electric outfielder. But John was wondering about adding Hamilton to compliment Juan Lagares as Lagares’ backup. For some of the reasons mentioned in John’s article and by many of you in the comments, I’m not so sure that’s the best use of a roster spot (although I still think it would be worth it if Hamilton would be cheap). Rather, I’m wondering whether the Mets should trade Lagares, and then add Hamilton.
Let’s get this out of the way: I know that Billy Hamilton is a terrible hitter. If he’s in your starting lineup, one-ninth of your at-bats are going to one of the league’s worst batsmen (and, for an NL team like the Mets, another is going to the pitcher). Hamilton is in the Major Leagues for his elite defense––– a selling point he shares with Lagares––– and his blink-and-you’ll-miss-him speed.
But I think this move could make a lot of sense for the Mets. Here are some reasons why:
- Hamilton’s bat makes it hard to start him, but Lagares shouldn’t be seen as a starter either.
All the talk of how Hamilton’s bat is too weak to justify putting him in the starting lineup glosses over one important, harsh reality: The Mets can’t, shouldn’t, and (I believe) don’t plan on relying on Juan Lagares to be their everyday starting center fielder. So when evaluating a move to replace Juan with Hamilton, we should not grade Hamilton as a starter. Why can’t we rely on Lagares, the 2014 Gold Glove winner at the position, to start in center field day in and day out? Well, that brings us to our second reality, one that has been the elephant in the room for most of Juan’s career:
- Lagares can’t stay on the field.
Lagares is a good player. He is elite defensively and has pretty good speed. His bat isn’t great, or even good but he has shown flashes at the plate, is somewhat half-decent against lefties, and the guy hit .339 last season. He and Hamilton both boost an elite glove, and while Lagares doesn’t have Hamilton’s blazing speed (making his fielding prowess more impressive), Lagares has the better bat. But despite that better bat, and that beautiful .339 average in 2018, Juan had fewer hits the past three seasons combined than Hamilton had in 2018 alone. Why? Because Lagares has played just 203 games during that span (and just 30 last year), while Hamilton has played in 411.
I mentioned that Lagares manages to play at an elite level in the field despite a lack of elite speed, and that’s because he goes all-out on every play. Lagares’ determination to catch any ball that goes in the air is admirable and makes him one of the team’s most exciting players, but it also lands him on the trainer’s table infuriatingly often.
If Lagares toned it down on defense, he wouldn’t be Juan Lagares, and he wouldn’t have as much value. But if he keeps being himself, the odds of him being on the disabled list are higher than the odds of him being on the field, and that’s why the Mets would be wise to— and, according to recent reports, appear to be looking to— add another outfielder to start in between Michael Conforto in left field and Brandon Nimmo in right (if Yoenis Cespedes comes back and stays healthy, that’s a bridge we’d all very happily cross when we come to it). This would make Lagares a fourth outfielder, and late-inning defensive replacement. Juan would be good for that role, but if we admit he and the team are best off when he comes off the bench, that brings us to our next point:
- As a 4th outfielder, Hamilton is a better value and a better fit for the Mets than Lagares
Lagares will make $9 million this coming season and has a $9.5 million option for 2020 that comes with $500K buyout. He might be good enough to be a starting center fielder (and I think “might” is a fair word, weighing his glove against his bat), but he can’t be relied on as a starter, which will require the Mets to seek an external option in the outfield. And if Lagares is slotted in as the fourth outfielder, $9M for a bench player best used as a defensive replacement is, if not an overpay, a luxury in which a team with the Mets’ well-documented payroll “issues” (a word I use to avoid picking between “constraints” and “choices”) should not indulge.
That $9M would be much better spent towards a catcher, a true 3rd starting OF (ideally one who can patrol center field), a high-end reliever to pair with Edwin Diaz in what is still a very weak bullpen, or even a starter to either provide depth behind (or in place of) the likes of Jason Vargas or replace Noah Syndergaard should the Mets deal “Thor” for what would certainly be a massive haul that would plug at least one of the aforementioned gaps in the roster.
Meanwhile, Hamilton, for a price of what I would assume to be around $2-4M this year, would provide a similarly phenomenal glove to be used as a late-inning replacement, while adding the incredible speed for which he is best known. As a Minor League in 2012, Hamilton stole 155 bases in 132 games. While he “only” swiped 34 bags for the Reds in 2018 (Amed Rosario led the Mets with 24), Hamilton had 59 steals in 2017 (the Mets had 58 as a team that year), 58 in 2016, 57 in 2015, and 56 in 2014. And while rarely getting on base is hardly something to brag about, it makes Hamilton’s stolen base numbers even more striking. Hamilton’s speed (which would also help cover for Nimmo and Conforto, and especially Cespedes, in the corners when used in center) also makes him a weapon off the bench in a way Lagares is not.
Hamilton can be used as a mercenary pinch-runner in late-inning, high-leverage situations, a skill which Terrance Gore, a far worse hitter, has used to single-handedly justify his roster spot for his entire career (Gore has 1 career hit, but has been on the 25-man roster for three playoff teams because of his ability to produce on the basepaths).
Lagares is a better hitter than Hamilton, but we’re not exactly comparing Mike Trout and Brad Emaus here. Hamilton has a career slash line of .245/.298/.333, while Lagares’ is .260/.300/.367. Hamilton’s lack of power is obvious (he has 20 career home runs; Sammy Sosa hit 20 in June of 1998), the elite speed means that a single from Hamilton is worth a bit more than his slugging percentage would reflect. So, especially in a bench role which would reduce the importance of their respective bats, I think the factors I have discussed make Hamilton’s tools (and his price) a better fit for the fourth outfielder spot in which I think the Mets would, without Hamilton, be smart to use Lagares.
One “if” I’ve ignored thus far is whether the Mets could move Juan Lagares before signing Hamilton, but I think that’s, at most, a medium-sized “if.” Lagares could have value to a team with less depth in the outfield (when Cespedes is healthy, the Mets have three very solid outfielders and even without Yoenis, two is nothing to sneeze at), less range in the corners, more faith in their training staff, a determination to improve their defense (and an aversion to Hamilton like the one Cincinnati showed by non-tendering him), and/or more room in their budget to pay a guy like Lagares a $9M salary.
Maybe it’s a team with a big budget who doesn’t mind having Juan on the bench or the DL even if he’s not making chump change. Maybe it’s a team with few current payroll commitments, but one not looking to shell out longer years and more money for a high-end free agent (or not confident in their ability to get that free agent to move to their city). Maybe the Mets only get a “lottery ticket” prospect in return, or maybe they have to eat $1-2 M of Lagares’ salary to make a deal (in which case they might get some more talent back). But I think Lagares is a movable contract, and I think, for the reasons I’ve discussed here, that the team might be better off sending him on his way and bringing in Hamilton as a replacement— one who will spend most of his time on the bench.
Now, people who know me know I’m a huge Lagares fan. I own his jersey and include it regularly in my rotation. I make some serious noise when he’s at the plate (although the best time to cheer for Juan is probably when the other team is hitting). One of my social media usernames used to be a pun on his name. After I pose this question, I expect at least three people to contact me to make sure I haven’t had my identity stolen. But as much as I like Juan, I can’t help but thinking this move might make sense. And if the Mets add another starting outfielder first, the move would feel more like replacing Lagares with someone like A.J. Pollock… and then replacing Austin Jackson with Hamilton. And in that case, I’d have to say, “Sign me up!”
My Verdict: Yes, the Mets should replace Lagares with Hamilton.
Mets fans, what do you think? If Brodie Van Wagenen has a GM on Line 1 offering to take Juan Lagares, and Billy Hamilton’s agent on Line 2 offering to sign for cheap, should he pull both triggers?