This is not who Juan Lagares believes he is. The 2014 Gold Glove center fielder has spent the past two seasons dealing with injuries and fighting for his spot in the Mets’ lineup. That is not how he saw it going when he signed an extension with the Mets in spring of 2015.
“I don’t see myself as a backup outfielder,” Lagares said this week. “I still feel like I can play every day. This is the time for me to show that.”
Lagares and the Mets are getting a chance to see him as an everyday player. With Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto out for the rest of the season with injuries, Lagares is their everyday centerfielder for the remainder of the year.
In the last 10 games since, Lagares has gone 10-for-34 with a home run, four doubles, a triple and three RBI. He has a .333 on-base percentage and .892 OPS over that span. For parts of five seasons in the big leagues, Lagares, 29, has a career slash line of .259/.298/.369.
“He’s kind of what he is,” said one Mets source. “He doesn’t walk much, he doesn’t hit for power, he doesn’t really steal bases. But you definitely want him in the outfield late in games defensively.”
He has always been a spectacular defensive centerfielder. Just ask the Mets pitchers, who will tell you that they love having him playing behind them. That’s not a small thing. There has been plenty of quiet grumbling from pitchers this season about the lax defense behind them making it feel like they have to strike every hitter out.
So the Mets, who gave him a four-year extension worth $ 24 million in March of 2015, have to decide if can build around him and carry a very expensive defensive backup.
Or do the Mets take the money that they have shed in trades and expiring contracts and invest in a do-it-all center fielder? It just so happens Lorenzo Cain, who can run, hit for power and play defense, will be a free agent this offseason.
Cain would be a quick fix for the Mets in more than one way heading into 2018.
They would have had more of a comfort level going into 2018 with Lagares in center if he finished the season with Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto. Sure, both are expected back next season, but the way their seasons ended certainly raise concerns about next season. They are the only two players signed that have consistently provided any power in the Mets lineup, but that’s not guaranteed going forward.
Cespedes, in the first year of a four-year $ 110 million deal with the Mets, played just 81 games this season because of hamstring injuries. Will he be able to stay on the field long enough next year for the Mets to rely on?
Conforto dislocated his shoulder swinging the bat last month, tearing the posterior capsule and needing surgery to repair it. That ended a breakout season for Conforto in which he hit a career-high 27 home runs.
While the prognosis for Conforto was that he would need a six-month rehab, there are many in the organization concerned that he will not be able to produce power like he did this year next year or beyond.
“He’d be great on a team that had a lineup that can carry him, like the Indians or Astros lineup,” one industry executive said of Lagares. “He needs to hit more, he needs to use his speed more, he needs to show he can hit with some power. He’s an expensive defensive bench player.”
Lagares knows in his heart he is more than just that.
He feels like he was doing that when he got hurt this season. He missed 47 games this season after he fractured his thumb diving for a ball in the outfield.
“It’s been so frustrating,” Lagares said. “I worked hard (last winter) and was feeling good when I (got chances to play). I felt like I was really starting to do good when I got hurt.
“But all I can do now is try and use this time to do what I can do,” Lagares continued. “I am trying to make them see that I can play every day. I don’t think I am a backup.”
Lagares is an everyday player some places in the big leagues. The Mets need to decide if that is in their lineup or find another solution in center field.