by Paul West
When Yoenis Cespedes was re-signed this offseason, I admit to getting caught up in the excitement. I even contradicted my own post-World-Series analysis in my 2016 Mets preview, in which I suggested Cespedes as the Opening Day center fielder and suggested Juan Lagares receive ample playing time amid a four-outfielder rotation.
I have since come back to my senses, and must now reiterate my previous contention: Juan Lagares should be the Mets’ Opening Day center fielder.
Believe it or not, this is not just a reaction to Cespedes’ recent spring training debacle against the Cardinals–though that, I will admit, was the proverbial last straw. This is a reaction to seeing Lagares continue where he left off in the 2015 postseason, in which he batted .348 and put together good at-bats against very good pitching. Lagares is looking more and more comfortable at the plate, as on the basepaths; he’s already stolen home this spring, and his speed combined with his gap power makes him an extra-base hit waiting to happen. And in the outfield, he’s looking healthy yet again–which makes him a Gold Glove waiting to happen.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still thrilled to have Cespedes back with the team. He’s a dangerous slugger with a cannon for a throwing arm, who also has genuine star power and genuinely wants to be here. Even allowing for his streakiness, his presence is a game-changer that contributes to how dangerous the Mets’ lineup looks this year. He’s also a good outfielder…on the corners. Which leads us to the crux of our problem.
By virtue of both metrics and proverbial eye test, Yoenis Cespedes is much better as a corner outfielder than he is in center field. It isn’t a matter of tools; he’s got speed, a throwing arm, and reasonable athleticism for a player his size. But his reads can be dicey in center, and he often looks uncomfortable. His closing speed at times makes up for it, but sometimes not…whereas Lagares has great closing speed as well, combined with fantastic reads and a great first step. As for the matter of athleticism, Lagares isn’t as impressive in stature as Cespedes; but he makes diving catches as well as leaping ones, and he runs down balls that look like sure-fire doubles off the bat. And lest we forget, before last year’s elbow issues he had one of the best arms we’d seen on a center fielder since Rick Ankiel. When Juan Lagares is in center field, the pitchers’ margin for error is much different than it is with Cespedes out there.
Of course, this raises the question: if not center field, where does Cespedes play? Well, at risk of sounding blasphemous to some…the answer is, right field.
Michael Conforto, I think most of us can see rather clearly, looks like the Mets’ left fielder of the foreseeable future. With any luck, left field will remain his for years to come. In right field, Curtis Granderson had a resurgent year in 2015 and cemented himself as an important part of the Mets’ core–but he’s also an average right fielder, with a below average arm. He was a steady source of power and good at bats from the leadoff position, but if Lagares continues to produce good at bats, he’ll bring the kind of speed to the top of the order that Granderson had in his prime. Lagares isn’t likely to hit many home runs–in fact, when he’s hitting his best, he shouldn’t–but he’s certainly capable of hitting 30 doubles with 20 stolen bases. Combine that with Gold Glove caliber defense in center field, and you have a leadoff hitter that would be the envy of most of the National League.
As for Granderson’s role, he’s a clubhouse-boosting veteran presence who can serviceably play all three outfield positions while supplying power and good at bats. That combination of attributes sounds like sounds like an ideal candidate for a fourth outfielder, which given his experience and stable disposition Granderson might adapt to very well. It’s also worth noting that Conforto, even if he’s nominally the everyday left fielder, will likely need breaks. He’s currently dealing with a resurgence of back spasms that have troubled him in the past, and this would still be his first full season as an everyday starting outfielder–right on the heels of a postseason that ran into November. He’ll need days off, as will Lagares and Cespedes. And given that Conforto is much better than previously advertised in the field, an outfield defense of Conforto, Lagares and Cespedes sounds tailor-made for a pitching-oriented team. As for the newly signed Alejandro De Aza, who happens to be having a solid spring? If he can adjust to a role as a spot-starter and pinch-hitter, he’ll only increase the Mets’ already vastly improved depth.
A simple outfield realignment would play to the strengths of Lagares, Granderson and Cespedes while dramatically improving the defense behind what looks like the best starting rotation in baseball. It’s at least worth a shot.