After riding the pine for part of the 2015 New York Mets, Juan Lagares is slimmer, focused, and ready to prove his worth yet again.
Just two years ago, Dominican center fielder Juan Lagares was playing Gold Glove worthy defense. He was gradually starting to display true promise in becoming one of the New York Mets‘ ‘outfielders of the future.’
In return, General Manager Sandy Alderson rewarded the then 25-year-old big leaguer with a 5-year, $23.5 million contract, keeping him in the Big Apple until the year 2020.
Now, Lagares is in the early stages of his prime at 27 and beginning to get back on track following a disaster of a season. Let’s put his not-so-Juanderful 2015 ‘disaster’ into perspective.
Lagares was coming off a surprisingly impactful 2014 campaign as a starting outfield, where he hit .281 with 47 RBIs and added a National League Gold Glove Award to his trophy case.
Just give Juan Lagares the Gold Glove now. https://t.co/Pyr9vVqXki
— Joe Giglio (@JoeGiglioSports) April 23, 2015
Come last season, which saw his Mets head full-throttle towards an NL Pennant and World Series birth, Lagares entered spring training looking a little different than his team and fans were accustomed to seeing him. More specifically, Lagares appeared a bit horizontally-challenged, so to speak.
Yeah, he was a little heavy. Playing at an above-normal weight in the outfield could provide a halfway decent excuse for not repeating as a gold-glover. Still, an un-ordinary diet of McDonalds and Taco Bell can’t explain one’s batting average dipping to .259.
From 2014 to 2015, his WAR (Wins Above Replacement) saw a stunning drop from 5.5 to 0.6. That dropped Lagares from competing with the Starling Marte‘s and Brandon Crawford‘s of Major League Baseball, to the Jake Lamb‘s and Eduardo Nunez‘s of it.
Lamb? Nunez? Who?
As you can see, no one can blame GM Alderson for deciding to gun for glory and making the deadline trade that sent Yoenis Cespedes to New York in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers.
The move was a no-brainer, but it left a big question mark for Lagares. With rookie left fielder Michael Conforto‘s call-up and immediate production and Cespedes proclaiming his desire to play in center over his native left-field, Juan Lagares was relegated to platoon duty as New York’s fourth outfielder.
These days, Juan Lagares is finally depicting a renewed sense of maturity and commitment to his ball club. Incredible, what removing the late-night refrigerator visit can do for one’s psyche.
Seriously, Lagares entered Grapefruit League play this spring approximately 20 pounds lighter than he was last year. Not to mention, he’s producing runs and hits like a maniac, albeit in meaningless preseason games.
Thus far in Spring Training, exactly a week shy of Opening Day, he’s batting .316, with one home run and seven RBI. Lagares has also stolen three bases, showing the world at-large the impact a little healthy eating and dates with the treadmill provides.
— New York Mets (@Mets) March 19, 2016
The most encouraging aspect, though, is not his on-fire approach at the plate, but his behavior while patrolling the outfield.
Lagares looks genuinely quick to the ball in center, pursuing it like a lion chasing its dinner, and sometimes finishing with the acrobatic catch.
Juan Lagares looks so much better in center this year. So much better.
— Marc Carig (@MarcCarig) March 26, 2016
In short, he’s appearing more like the 2014-Juan, preparing to avoid another 2015 debacle.
Understandably, it will be tough for Manager Terry Collins to juggle the talent he has at outfield, but the many routes he can take are a blessing in the truest form.
With Conforto likely ready to take the next-step and be unleashed against lefty pitching, a regular platoon with Lagares appears unlikely.
However, Curtis Granderson, at 35, is an irreplaceable veteran in the long-run, but can certainly take a few games off here and there to create ample time for Juan, moving Conforto over to right.
Or, maybe, the unexpected (yet, not so far-fetched) occurs, and one of the three Met starters either performs below expectation or heads to the disabled list with an injury. While not ideal predicament for Mets fans, Lagares wouldn’t complain.
Whether it means cutting the playing time of Granderson, Conforto, or even Cespedes, Terry Collins knows the eager Lagares has earned the opportunity to prove himself, telling Anthony Dicomo of SNY:
“This guy came in here with a mission. This is a great start to it.”
Regardless, Lagares’s unique combination of speed and power make him, once again, an extra-base hit and defensive-assist waiting to happen. He’s easily capable of surpassing 50 RBI, 100+ hits, 30 doubles and 20-30 steals this season.
In nearly seven days, when it comes time for the regular season to begin, Juan Lagares is expected to provide a significant boost to both New York’s offense and defense, and regain the 2014 form that his team misses dearly.