by Paul West
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, you were a front office executive for an MLB team. Let’s say someone were to offer you a player with decent speed on the bases, a monstrous throwing arm, and once-in-a-generation defensive ability in center field? Let’s say said player was spoken of in the same breath as Devon White and a young Andruw Jones, and “where extra base hits go to die” was said of him routinely by a respected veteran announcer. Let’s say the primary remaining caveat about said player is that he’d bat around .260, with relatively even splits against righties and lefties. Let’s say, finally, that this player is 27 years old–which is to say, probably entering his peak–and had batted .348 in the previous year’s postseason, putting together consistently good at bats against tough pitching?
Would you give this young man a legitimate chance to stake his claim as your everyday center fielder?
The New York Mets have a player who fits the above description: Juan Lagares, who’s currently fifth on the team in batting average while they continue to find excuses to manufacture a dilemma in center field.
In the offseason, they brought in Alejandro DeAza, largely because they thought they’d lose Yoenis Cespedes but also because of DeAza’s ability to play center field. Once they re-signed Cespedes, they attempted to shoe-horn him into center field–and he began to pile up lower-body injuries, playing a position for which he’s suited to play well occasionally but not for an entire season. Cespedes himself has since recognized that struggling to play center field has contributed to his lingering injury problem; the Mets’ response, astoundingly, has been to wonder aloud if Michael Conforto is the solution in center. Yes, the same Michael Conforto whose struggles at the plate were cause for a brief demotion to let him clear his head. Yes, the same Michael Conforto who’s played center field only sporadically in recent years. Meanwhile, it’s actually been said in all seriousness that the Mets lack “a true center fielder,” as if a Gold Glove center fielder isn’t staring them in the face from the confines of their own clubhouse.
It seems that Mets management would rather see a Gold Glove corner outfielder risk injury, covering more ground than he should be asked to cover, in center, than an actual Gold Glove center fielder cover ground with jaw-dropping fluidity. That, or force a budding young superstar, already struggling with a sophomore slump at the plate, to learn center field on the job while recovering from a brutal slump–again, instead of letting center field go back to being “where extra base hits go to die.”
To state it as plainly as possible: Yoenis Cespedes is a Gold Glove corner outfielder. Michael Conforto is a good corner outfielder. Juan Lagares is an outstanding center fielder. Meanwhile, Curtis Granderson is experienced at all three positions, and would probably adapt most effectively to a role as a fourth outfielder while continuing to be a valuable presence in the clubhouse–but this is apparently an option not even being considered.
Between this, and looking for excuses not to play Wilmer Flores, it seems the Mets have forgotten what to do with the talent they themselves have cultivated. Meanwhile, the Mets’ chances of defending their pennant continue to wane.