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Juan Lagares Needs To Be The Mets 2018 Center Fielder

With the Mets cutting payroll and having holes and question marks across the 25 and 40 man roster, it is finally time for Juan Lagares to sink or swim.

With respect to Lagares, he was never supposed to have been a question mark.  Certainly, the Mets didn’t feel this way when they gave him a four year $23 million contract extension on the eve of the 2015 season.

When giving Lagares the extension, the expectation was Lagares would continue being a Gold Glover out there, and he would eventually learn to hit a little.  While hindsight may be 20/20, this was about as good a bet as there could have been with Lagares hitting .281/.321/.382 with a 102 OPS+ and a 101 wRC+ in 2014.  His ability to be a league average hitter and otherworldly in center made him a 5.4 bWAR and 3.9 fWAR player that year. That made him the best player on the Mets.

Since that season, things have fallen apart for him.  In 2015, he regressed at the plate, which would have been palatable if he didn’t regress even more in the field.  In the subsequent two seasons, Lagares seems to have been getting back to the player he was in 2014, but he has suffered significant thumb injuries in successive seasons.

This could be a cause for pessimism, but we saw the 2014 Lagares in the field again last year.  That Lagares wasn’t just a Gold Glover, he was the guy you expected to catch everything.  He was the guy who was head and shoulders above even the best defensive center fielders in the game.

Among center fielders with at least 550 innings last year, Lagares was third overall and tops in the National League with a 15 DRS.  He was also the Major League leader with a 24.7 UZR/150.  You could chalk these up to small sample sizes all the like, but consider the numbers he put up in 2013 and 2014:

  • 2013: 26 DRS, 33.1 UZR/150
  • 2014: 26 DRS, 25.3 UZR/150

At his core this is who Lagares is.  And with all of Major League Baseball prioritizing hitting the ball in the air, having Lagares patrolling center field is an imperative.

As we saw, the Mets pitching staff all regressed last year.  Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman weren’t the hot shot rookies they were in 2016.  Even when “healthy,” Matt HarveySteven Matz, and Zack Wheeler weren’t who we expected them to be.  Even Jacob deGrom, who had a resurgent year a year after having ulnar nerve transposition surgery, wasn’t the same pitcher posting career worsts in ERA, ERA+, FIP, and HR/9.

So far, the Mets have done a lot to help address these issues.  They’ve hired Mickey Callaway and Dave Eiland.  They’ve discussed not allowing their pitchers go a third time through the lineup.  While both could help, it is indisputable having Lagares in center will be an enormous benefit as well.

Now, if you can get Lagares to hit even a little, then you have the player you thought you had in 2014.  You have the player you thought would have a collection of Gold Gloves at this point in his career.  You have the player the Mets once thought was worth $23 million.  You have an answer to one of the biggest question marks on a Mets roster that has more holes in it that a piece of Swiss cheese attacked with a hole puncher.

Overall, the best bet for the Mets in 2018 is a healthy and productive Lagares.  He helps the pitching staff return to form, and he allows the Mets to allocate money to other areas of the team that are in more desperate need of addressing.  And if that doesn’t work, you at least have a platoon partner for Brandon Nimmo out there . . . .

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