by Paul West
With Michael Cuddyer set to return soon from the disabled list, the Mets have a suddenly crowded outfield. This comes at a time when the offense has begun to click and the team is in the midst of a six-game tear in which they’ve assumed control of the National League East. With the Mets traveling to Tropicana Field to play three games using the designated hitter (a trip which seems perfectly timed), the crowding issue is easier to manage. They can give people breaks from the field, and they can play to their defensive strengths while keeping Daniel Murphy and/or Wilmer Flores in the lineup. Unfortunately, Cuddyer’s return is projected to coincide with the Mets’ return to National League play. This presents a conundrum, partly due to the impressive performance of rookie Michael Conforto.
Fans have clamored for Conforto’s arrival all season, and so far he looks looks ready for the big leagues. He’s got a smooth, steady approach at the plate and a line-drive swing with power from gap to gap. He’s also better than advertised in the field; he’s gotten good jumps, has a solid throwing arm and has shown good closing speed toward the lines. All things considered, Conforto is a net positive who’s able to produce in multiple areas of the game. This compares well, especially defensively, with Cuddyer, who’s struggled all season at the plate and is an average-at-best outfielder even when healthy. Yoenis Cespedes is an obvious everyday option, and he can play all three outfield positions; Curtis Granderson can play both corners, and is playing as well as he has since joining the Mets. This leaves one outfield spot up for grabs.
Juan Lagares, normally a once-in-a-generation defender in center field, has dealt with assorted physical ailments and struggled at the plate. At the moment, he’s being used to strengthen the defense situationally until his overall health improves and his hitting levels off. Conforto is a solid corner outfielder with a thus-far impressive lefty bat, and Cuddyer is an experienced professional hitter with righty power who struggles at times in the field.
It should be remembered that Cuddyer won a batting title just two years ago, and probably still has plenty of good swings left in is bat; but while he’s struggling offensively and battling nagging injuries, Conforto is a better overall option. If the Mets don’t put Conforto at the top of their left field depth chart, their best move might be to platoon him with Cuddyer in left field and continue to use Lagares as a defensive replacement and spot-starter. If Lagares returns to last season’s form, he could slot into center field once again and Cespedes could bounce to left field on an everyday basis; this would add a lefty bat and a righty bat to the Mets’ bench, and give them enviable flexibility.
All things considered, Michael Conforto has earned a shot at an everyday job. If nothing else, the Mets should continue to give him heavy rotation, even after Michael Cuddyer returns.