Juan Lagares has been with the Mets since the end of April, but he only won the everyday gig in center field when the Mets optioned Kirk Nieuwenhuis to the minors on July 27. Over the past couple of months, he’s played well enough to put his name in the mix for a starting job on Opening Day next year.
There’s never been much question about Lagares’s defense. He makes playing center field look easy and has been the Mets’ best fielder at the position since Carlos Beltran. The defensive metrics agree, as his 16 defensive runs saved (DRS) ranks third among major league center fielders this year despite the fact that he’s played far fewer innings than his peers. Defensive metrics can be wonky, especially in such a short period of time, but the early returns here seem to make sense.
The question with Lagares, though, is the bat. At the end of play on June 1, he had a .146/.180/.250 hitting line in just 51 plate appearances. Since then, however, he’s hit .308/.339/.459, raising his line for the season to .271/.303/.411. That’s good for a .305 wOBA and 95 wRC+, both of which are still below the big league averages of .318 and 100 in center field.
It’s easy to be skeptical. Lagares raked in St. Lucie and Binghamton in 2011, had a down year in 2012, and broke out again with the bat in the extreme hitter’s environment of Las Vegas and the Pacific Coast League early this year. His slash line since June 5 has been propped up by an unsustainable .400 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). His 3.6 percent walk rate is really low, especially compared to the 7.8 percent average for major league hitters. In short, he’s probably not as good a hitter as he’s been over the last couple of months, at least not yet.
There’s more than one way to build a contending team. Center field is a position where a plus-plus defender can probably get by with a below-average bat, but the Mets will have to generate offense from more than just their elite third baseman next year. The free agent market for center fielders is weak, though—Jacoby Ellsbury and Curtis Granderson are the two good ones—and the Mets don’t have an obvious alternative in the organization right now, either. The job is there for the taking, but Lagares has not yet proven himself as the Mets’ center fielder of the future.