The Mets' outfield was in a major flux heading into the 2014 season. Free agent splash Curtis Granderson was the only player expected to be in the lineup every day, and the remaining two spots were up in the air between defensive whiz—yet offensively challenged—Juan Lagares, the National Leagues' reigning stolen base king Eric Young Jr., and the newly acquired wild card Chris Young.
As a 24-year-old rookie, Lagares hit .242/.281/.352 in 2013. His defense in center field was unquestionably among the best in baseball, but his underwhelming batting line led many to wonder if he was capable of playing every day on a Mets team that already had so many other positions to worry about offensively.
Lagares got the Opening Day nod in center field and proceeded to go 2-for-4 with three runs scored and an RBI. Jr.'s day did not go nearly as well, putting up a golden sombrero out of the leadoff spot. For the Mets, this type of production was a sign of things to come for the rest of the season.
Lagares's sophomore campaign got off to a terrific start. He hit .314/.345/.471 with a .816 OPS in the Mets' first 13 games. Then on April 15, Lagares was placed on the disabled list with a hamstring injury that would keep him sidelined for the rest of April. Upon his return to the diamond on May 1, Lagares racked up two doubles and an RBI. Shortly thereafter Terry Collins named Lagares the Mets primary center fielder. Inexplicably, Collins then held Lagares out of the lineup for four of five games in mid-May to make room in the outfield for the likes of Bobby Abreu, Eric Young, and Chris Young, prompting an uproar from media and fans, thus giving life to the Twitter hashtag #FreeLagares, which for a time trended nationally.
After he rode the pine for three consecutive days—three consecutive Mets losses—Mets fans rejoiced as Collins inserted Lagares back into the lineup. In his triumphant return to center field, Lagares blasted a two-run homer and made an unbelievable over-the-wall catch to rob Jayson Werth of a home run in the bottom of the sixth inning. Lagares finished the game going 2-for-4 with three RBI and a run scored, and the Mets beat the Washington Nationals by a score of 5-2. After that day, no matter how infatuated Collins was with the speed of Young Jr. or the veteran presence of Abreu, no matter how much Chris Young was getting paid—nothing was going to stand in the way of a healthy Lagares playing center filed regularly. Lagares rounded out May as one of the team's top offensive performers with a line of .280/.330/.410 for the month.
On June 2, Lagares made an unfortunate return trip to the DL, this time due to a right intercostal strain. Up until this point, the athletic center fielder held an inspiring batting line of .288/.331/.423 with two home runs and 18 RBI in 42 games. He ended up missing three-and-a-half weeks of action, getting back in the lineup on June 26. The dog days of summer were arguably the toughest on Lagares, as his offensive production dipped to .266/.302/.357 combined during July and August. These numbers are still more than acceptable when paired with his elite defense in center field as evidenced by his top three overall finishes in defensive metrics such as DRS and UZR/150, per Fangraphs.
The final month of the season gave Mets fans a glimpse of what to expect from their potential 2015 leadoff man. After only stealing six bases all season, Lagares swiped seven bags out of the leadoff spot in just 15 September games and got caught only once. His new-found thievery on the basepaths will be entertaining to watch for in 2015. Of course, his season was abruptly ended after a sprained right elbow, but that should not get in the way of what was a breakout season of sorts for Lagares in 2014. Alas, his "lay it all out on the field" style of play attributed to three relatively minor trips to the disabled list.
He finished the season at .281/.321/.382 with four home runs and 47 RBI in 116 games while playing Gold Glove caliber defense every step of the way in center field. He ended with a slightly above league average 101 wRC+. Lagares enters the offseason as the in-house favorite to be the Mets' Opening Day leadoff man next season, but the team may be wise to look into acquiring a more speed oriented player at either shortstop or corner outfield who has a bit more consistent plate discipline than Lagares to plug in at the top of the order. Nonetheless, no matter where in the lineup he hits, Lagares certainly proved this season that he is more than just a defensive stud, but a player whose continued offensive improvements have made him part of the teams core players to build a contender around as soon as 2015.
Desired 2015 role: Full-time starting center fielder batting further down in the order as Mets acquire more ideal leadoff-type hitter through free agency or trade
Projected 2015 role: Full-time starting center fielder and good-enough leadoff hitter.