Center field was something of a nightmare for the Mets in 2012, to put it mildly. Andres Torres and Kirk Nieuwenhuis were equally inept at the plate, and neither player played particularly great defense. Despite the lousy numbers, though, they combined for 2.6 fWAR over the course of the season, which doesn't seem right but perhaps suggests that things could have been a whole lot worse.
Now, though, Torres is a free agent — one who the Mets may very well not bring back — and Nieuwenhuis is the only reasonable internal candidate to take the job on Opening Day.
Minor Leagues: Help on the Way?
We turn to Rob Castellano for a review of the position in the Mets' minor league system:
Like shortstops, true center fielders are tough to come by at the minor league level. Currently for the Mets, they’re tough to come by at the major league level, too. Fortunately, the team has a true center fielder – at least with the glove – in Binghamton’s Matt Den Dekker. The 2010 fifth-round pick is a plus defender who should have no problems patrolling a center field for the Mets. The question is whether his bat will dictate a starting role or relegate him to the playing time typically given to a defensive specialist. As much as he tore up Double-A in the first half of 2012 (.960 OPS), that’s how poorly he performed upon promotion to Buffalo (.629 OPS). Regardless, he’ll likely never hit for high average or limit his strikeouts, but he has good raw power from the left side. At 25, he has to keep performing to stay relevant. If he does, expect to see him early in 2013.
While he’s no sure thing in center like den Dekker, it should be noted that 23-year-old converted-shortstop Juan Lagares is at least worth a look. In many ways, his value as a prospect is tied to his ability to learn his new defensive home as his offensive skillset does not warrant a corner outfield role. He’s shown a nice hit tool in the past along with good speed and if everything broke just right, he could profile as an average defensive center fielder who does a little bit of everything offensively — in the mold of Jon Jay.
In addition to Rob's pair of players to watch, Brandon Nimmo — the Mets' first-round pick in 2011 — could be the long-term solution, but he has yet to make an appearance above Low-A Brooklyn and figures to be a few years away from the big leagues.
The Mets weren't expected to sign any of the major free-agent center fielders this winter, but Shane Victorino, B.J. Upton, and Angel Pagan have all inked major deals already. Grady Sizemore might have been an interesting pickup an a non-guaranteed, incentive-laden deal, but he's expected to miss most of the 2013 season after yet another surgery this winter.
Michael Bourn, however, is still a free agent. He'll likely sign a deal that's far too expensive for the Mets, but if for any reason the market for his services has dwindled to the point that he'd sign a reasonable deal, perhaps there could be a fit between the team and player. Bourn's just about to turn 30 and depends greatly on his defensive prowess and baserunning ability to generate his value as a player, which means a long-term deal could be risky. He hits for very little power, but his career .339 OBP, paired with his defensive skill, would instantly make him the best outfielder on the Mets' roster. Unfortunately, it's hard to imagine Bourn accepting a deal that would make sense for the Mets.
The team could also turn to the trade market, which remains a possibility since it is still just December 12. Steve Schreiber's excellent series on potential trade targets in the outfield is worth checking out, even if some of the players covered have since been traded elsewhere.
Best Option for 2013
Before he was traded to the Nationals, Denard Span seemed like a great fit for the Mets in center. Since he's off the market now, though, the team might be best suited to bring back Torres on a less-expensive contract and platoon him with Nieuwenhuis in center. That's not a desirable solution, but if Sandy Alderson can find an everyday outfielder for one of the corner spots, a platoon in center might work until a better option presents itself.