What is Juan Lagares’ future with the Mets? Will the team try to sign a free agent outfielder? Maybe make a trade for a better hitting, established center fielder? Hope for a healthy Michael Conforto in right and platoon Brandon Nimmo and Lagares in center? Just a few years ago, it seemed Juan would be patrolling center field for the Mets for a long time to come.
Four Year Contract
The Mets signed Lagares to a 4 year, $23 million contract extension just before the 2015 season. The contract didn’t kick-in until the 2016 season. The team thought they had the center field position filled for years to come. In April of 2015, General Manager Sandy Alderson told MLB.com:
I think that baseball rewards exceptional performance in whatever area, whether it’s power, hitting for average, great defense. He’s shown that he can play great defense and still carry a bat sufficiently to stay in the lineup. So from that standpoint, he’s moving toward becoming a complete player.
Manager Terry Collins agreed, saying:
He’s going to be a really, really good player. We’ve said that from the time he got to the Major Leagues. He’s a special player defensively. He’s working on every phase of the game daily. We’re very, very excited that he’s going to be our center fielder because he’s going to be a solid player, and he’s just going to get better and better.
The remaining part of the contract will pay Lagares $6.5 million in 2018 and $9.0 million in 2019. So he’ll likely have some role on the team going forward.
A series of leg, hand and shoulder injuries the last 3 years resulted in a reduction of both playing time and production for Lagares. His plate appearances went from 465 in 2015 to just 160 last year and only slightly more this season. Manager Terry Collins summarized it this week to NJ.com:
The way Juan plays, he plays with great energy and fearlessness, so he gets banged up. When you’re a guy like Juan Lagares, you’ve got to play that way. That’s what makes him special. We’ve got to figure out a way to somehow keep him on the field a little bit better, but his injuries have been freaky.
Juan Lagares’ Gold Glove
Lagares broke into the big leagues largely because of his outstanding glove. He made many highlight video catches and won a Gold Glove in 2014. He led all Major League center fielders in defensive runs saved that season. But the injuries took a toll on his fielding in the years between then and now as this table shows.
He’s regained much of his defensive value this season, as the recent catch below attests. But it remains to be seen if his body will allow him to play a full season at that elite level.
— New York Mets (@Mets) August 16, 2017
Once a promising leadoff hitter, Lagares has not improved much at the plate. After about 1,600 at bats, Lagares has just 19 home runs, an average of .260 and an on base percentage of .299. His career numbers against left-handed pitchers are better than against righties, particularly his power numbers, as this chart shows:
Lagares offensive value would be increased if he could just raise his OBP. Although he has only 35 career steals, his speed is a rare asset on this team. But overall, his offensive decline the last few years has been just as stark. His Fangraphs WAR declined from 3.9 in 2014 to 1.3 this year. His wRC+ has also declined.
Juan Lagares’ Future with the Mets
Because of his contract, injury history and sub-optimal batting, Lagares is unlikely to be traded. His defense alone makes him valuable, but his lack of offense becomes more noticeable when the rest of the lineup isn’t hitting either. If the Mets can surround him with other good hitters to offset his weak bat, then his defensive value will get a chance to shine. His role in 2018 is going to depend a lot on the pieces that they put around him.
His role next season could be as the right-handed half of a center field platoon. Or just a defensive replacement, fourth outfielder. He will only be 29 years old next March, so it’s not impossible that he could still rebound. If he can just stay healthy.
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Photo by slgckgc