With a lack of a competent replacement, the New York Mets organization may turn to an allegedly “improved” Juan Lagares to man center field in 2018.
There is an elephant room and it’s time to address it. As constructed, the New York Mets do not have a complete center fielder on the roster.
What if Juan Lagares actually ends up as the Mets’ everyday center fielder in 2018? Is he capable of playing 140-plus games and accumulating 600 at-bats in a season?
Originally signed to the organization as a shortstop, Lagares burst on the major league scene in 2013. He was mainly billed as a defensive specialist and it was highly questionable whether his bat or ability to get on base would ever come around.
In what will generally be remembered as “the year without Matt Harvey,” Lagares illuminated an otherwise dark season for the Mets. Finishing with a record of 79-83, the Amazins’ didn’t have much to hang their hat on, with the exception of what seemed to be a breakout season from the then 25-year-old center fielder. Posting a slash line of .281/.321/.382 with four home runs, 47 RBIs, and the 13 stolen bases, Lagares saw pretty significant uptick in production and highlighted the season by earning a Gold Glove selection in center field.
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While those number don’t exactly anoint a player to superstar status, Lagares accumulated a WAR of 5.5 in 2014, a total good enough to create the illusion of a superstar. Seizing the opportunity, the Dominican Republic native cashed in with the Mets in the form of a lucrative extension. The team inked him to a four-year extension prior to the 2015 season worth $23 million, buying out his arbitration years and potentially a year of free agency. The deal included a fifth-year option worth $9.5 million.
Since receiving the pay raise, injuries and poor play have severely diminished the overall perception of Lagares’ value. A nagging elbow issue robbed the former Gold Glover of his ability to patrol center field to his full potential. Thanks to other recurring issues, Lagares has failed to appear in more than 100 games in each of the last two seasons and hasn’t come close to reaching the career high .281 batting average he set in 2014.
The good news, if you want to buy into it, is that Lagares is now working with the same coach that turned around J.D. Martinez’s career. According to James Wagner of the New York Times, Craig Wallenbrock is the hitting instructor who was able to transform Martinez into the colossal slugger he is today. In 2017, Martinez belted 45 home runs and drove in 104 RBI’s in only 119 games split between the Detroit Tigers and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Prior to working with Wallenbrock, Martinez was a relatively unimpressive hitter who’s batting average hovered around the .250 range. Shuttling between the Houston Astros and their minor league affiliates, the old version of Martinez only slugged 24 home runs in nearly 900 at-bats. His new regimen bred immediate results, raising his average to .315 and launching 23 home runs and 76 RBIs during his age-26 season. Fast forward three years and 105 home runs later and we have a corner outfielder who very may well get a $200 million dollar pay day.
The interesting thing about Lagares is that at the top of his game, his defense carries so much value that he doesn’t have to be a star at the plate to be a viable, major league caliber center fielder. Turning to Lagares is certainly a much more cost efficient option than bringing in a player like Lorenzo Cain at $15-20 million per season. If Lagares can improve at the plate enough to justify his playing time, then those resources can be allocated elsewhere and the Mets can fall back on a former Gold Glover in a premium defensive position.
There is definitely potential for a turnaround, but Juan Lagares is drastically different from J.D. Martinez. For one, at no point has Lagares demonstrated the power that Martinez had been capable of early on in his career. With that being said, Lagares’ defense is miles ahead of Martinez as he is able to slot into any outfield position at a high level. Ultimately, it comes down to whether the 28-year-old can stay healthy in 2018 and if it’s worth pushing the narrative that Lagares can improve at the dish. If Sandy Alderson and the front office are wrong, it could wind up being a significant wasted opportunity to compete in 2018.