by Paul West
As the offseason picks up steam, there’s been much discussion about the New York Mets pursuing a free agent to play center field. Dexter Fowler is one of the primary options being considered; Denard Span is also being discussed as an option to platoon in center field with Juan Lagares. Meanwhile, Ian Desmond is being discussed as an option at shortstop, as there’s talk of non-tendering Ruben Tejada and Daniel Murphy is still expected to head elsewhere. But would either of these moves be necessary?
Desmond is seen as an athletic, everyday option at shortstop, who can make highlight-reel plays and provide power. But he’s also 30 years old, with a .263 career batting average and a tendency to be streaky. He had 19 home runs last season, but he also hit .233; meanwhile, Wilmer Flores hiy 16 home runs while batting .263, despite being a part-time player for most of the year. Flores has as much raw power as most players at his position; he’s also just 24, and his approach at the plate is continuing to improve. He put together some impressive at bats in the postseason against tough pitching, and he’s shown the ability to take the ball to right field or up the middle when the situation calls for it. As for his defense, Flores has begun to seem like less of a liability than once feared. He’s got a very strong arm, and despite not having particularly impressive range in the hole, he’s reasonably surehanded and not prone to baffling mistakes the way Murphy continues to be. His performance down the stretch, combined with the way Mets fans have come to embrace him, might fuel his confidence in a way that makes him turn a developmental corner. He’s capable of impressive plays when going to his left, he’s solid at turning the double play, and again: he’s only 24. With Murphy gone, the Mets can leave Flores at short and bring in a stronger defender at second base to strengthen their defense up the middle. Dilson Herrera, who’s starting to look almost ready for prime time, deserves a chance to audition for that role. And if the Mets decided they still wanted a defensive upgrade at short, they could move Flores to second base–but then Desmond’s acquisition would be redundant, as they would already have a power-hitting middle infielder with a middling batting average. Either way, it can be argued that Flores is just a younger version of Desmond with higher overall upside and lots of room for growth. It’s also no small matter that Flores has become something of a local folk hero, and his presence has been an enormous spark for a team that exceeded expectations in their World Series run.
Speaking of strength up the middle, let’s remember something: before being sidetracked by a flurry of nagging injuries, Juan Lagares was one of the best-looking defensive center fielders in a generation. Over the course of the stretch run, as he began to heal, he began to show flashes of the defender that had people all over baseball comparing him to the likes of Devon White and Andruw Jones. His throwing arm still hasn’t gone back to being the cannon it was a year ago, but it’s gone back to being better than average; and his range, reads and closing speed are beginning to reintegrate as his body returns to normalcy, making him once again Gold-Glove potential. On a pitching-oriented team, hie’s a real difference maker in the field. Of course, his fielding was never the issue. Lagares has been frustrating at times on offense, swinging at pitchers’ pitches and showing vulnerability against righties. But here’s another thing to remember: in the latter part of the 2015 postseason, it was Lagares who was putting together solid at-bats while much of the rest of the lineup struggled. Lagares went 8 for 23 in the postseason, with two stolen bases and only three strikeouts, and showed the offensive potential that once had some people clamoring for him as the Mets’ leadoff hitter. He’s got good speed and decent raw power, and he’s also still 26. While Span and Fowler are intriguing options, Lagares has earned his shot at reclaiming the everyday job in center field. Besides, Fowler is only a career .267 hitter, and Span is more consistent but has battled injuries as well and is preposterously bad against lefties. If the Mets stick with Lagares, it will leave room and resources to address needs such as finding a reliable setup man.
The Mets got as far as they did in 2015 by making moves selectively and trusting their young talent. In the cases of Wilmer Flores and Juan Lagares, they might be well advised to do the same.