There was a time this offseason when the majority of Mets fans assumed that Alejandro De Aza would be getting the bulk of the playing time in center field in 2016. This caused great frustration for a number of reasons, but a common rejoinder was this: De Aza is a fine bench piece, but he shouldn’t be starting every day for a first-division team.
And then the Mets signed Yoenis Cespedes, and De Aza became just that: a fine bench piece. And, for the first time in recent memory, the Mets have a collection of just that: actual bench pieces. Not part time players playing every day in multiple positions, or Triple-A players posing as a major league bench, but a bona fide bench, providing the team some depth.
When looking over the first 24 games of the season, a few things about the bench jump out at you pretty quickly. The first is that April’s schedule is bizarre, and all the extra days off mean that the bench got considerably less playing time in April than it might going forward. To that point, May has two off days and June three; April had six, and the season didn’t start until April 3.
The Mets have also played two series in American League parks, where they were afforded a designated hitter, allowing the bench players to get a few more at-bats than they would get in two series at home. But Terry Collins recently said that he's looking to get more playing time for players like Wilmer Flores and Juan Lagares in order to keep them sharp.
Lagares has been the best of the bunch so far. He's started seven of the Mets’ first 24 games, good for 39 plate appearances, and he has hit .306/.359/.417 with three walks and four strikeouts. Of his eleven hits, three have been for extra bases, good overall for a 112 wRC+. Lagares has also looked far more like the 2014 version of himself in the field, running down some very difficult fly balls, and showing a stronger arm than he did last season.
Due to the Mets’ offense-oriented outfield, look for Lagares to pop up as a defensive replacement late in games, spelling all three regular outfielders on occasion, and getting more starts against lefties than not. There’s no reason to believe that he can’t continue a very successful season as the team’s fourth outfielder.
After Lagares, there is quite a drop-off in quality from the bench in terms of production. His closest competition comes from the aforementioned De Aza, who has started six games thus far; he has at least nine innings at each of the three outfield positions. He has shown a little power in the early going, hitting one home run and one double among his six hits. He is striking out more than Lagares, and his outfield defense is nowhere near that of his fellow bench outfielder. That said, he is doing about what you would hope he would do: Provide adequate defense without being a complete black hole at the plate.
Backup catcher Kevin Plawecki finds himself playing every day, the first of the bench players to officially move into the starting lineup due to an injury—in this case, Travis d'Arnaud's rotator cuff strain—though Lagares did start over Cespedes for the better part of a week while Cespedes dealt with his bruised knee. Before d’Arnaud hit the disabled list on April 26, Plawecki had started five games, and come into two, both when d’Arnaud was feared injured. Plawecki only picked up three hits and three walks across those 20 plate appearances.
Since getting into the starting lineup nearly every day—save for Saturday’s Rene Rivera start—Plawecki has hit just .158/.333/.158. None of his hits have been for extra bases, and while some—including Keith Law—believe that Plawecki is a better player than he has shown thus far, the bar for catching offense is so low that even if Plawecki hits only slightly better than this while d’Arnaud is on the disabled list, the Mets should be all right considering the strength of the other players in the lineup.
While on the topic of catchers, Rene Rivera has joined the team as the backup while d’Arnaud heals. Rivera is the definition of a backup catcher, sporting negligible offensive prowess and perfectly cromulent defensive skills for a guy starting once a week. The Mets are not looking for him to do much more than spell Plawecki once a week or so and not be so offensively terrible that they need to make another roster move. Rivera should be fine in that role, but don’t expect him to hit his weight or higher.
Eric Campbell has already made a trip to Las Vegas this year, and seems like the bench player most likely, aside from perhaps Rivera, to make that trip frequently in 2016. Campbell hasn’t played much this season, getting his first start on May 1 at first base, and has been his usual self thus far, compiling two singles, two walks, and five strikeouts in 13 plate appearances. Campbell is on the team, ostensibly, to take some at-bats against lefties and to occasionally spell David Wright or Lucas Duda.
Campbell will see significantly fewer at bats this season if Wilmer Flores is right, as Flores looks to be the primary substitute at all four infield positions for the Mets. So far, however, Flores hasn’t looked great at the dish. Part of that is due to limited playing time; with Duda, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Neil Walker all playing well, Flores has only started seven games and, aside from Saturday’s home run, hasn’t shown much power and has looked a bit awkward at the plate. With more left-handed opposing starting pitchers in the offing—coupled with very few off days for the team—Flores should get plenty of opportunities for playing time.