After a disastrous 2017 campaign, the Mets have a number of questions to answer this offseason. Chief among them is what to do with their outfield. With Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto penciled in for starting roles in 2018, the Mets need to decide whether to fill the third outfield job internally or with someone currently outside the organization.
Conventional wisdom not too long ago was that the Mets would need to sign a free agent center fielder. However, strong play from Brandon Nimmo down the stretch and a solid bounceback year from Juan Lagares made that idea less of a given. Based on their production in 2017, Nimmo and Lagares have actually emerged as a viable platoon option in center.
Nimmo was particularly impressive this year. In 69 games, the rookie hit .260/.379/.418 (117 wRC+) with five home runs, 21 RBIs, 26 runs scored, and 1.1 fWAR. Lagares hit just .250/.296/.365 (77 wRC+), while contributing three home runs, 15 RBIs, and 37 runs in 94 games. However, Lagares made up for his offensive woes with outstanding defensive play, as his 15 DRS and 10.4 UZR yielded a very respectable (given his playing time) 1.5 fWAR.
Nimmo’s offense and Lagares’s defense complement each other nicely, and their offensive splits make a platoon even more viable: Nimmo has compiled an impressive .279/.382/.428 batting line (121 wRC+) in his 238 career plate appearances against right-handed pitching. Lagares, despite struggling in just 86 plate appearances against lefties in 2017, is a career .267/.314/.400 hitter against them, good for a basically league-average 98 wRC+.
|Brandon Nimmo||vs. R||89||238||.279||.382||.428||121|
|Juan Lagares||vs. L||256||535||.267||.314||.400||98|
Nimmo and Lagares combined to produce 2.6 fWAR in fewer than 500 plate appearances in 2017. If both players can replicate that production in 2018, it would give the Mets a highly serviceable platoon option in center field.
Of course, given Nimmo’s limited major league experience and Lagares’s inconsistency, it’s hard to know exactly what the Mets can expect from either player. As a result, the team could test the waters in free agency, and below are some of the leading free agent center fielders who could be fits. (Note that the defensive stats represent the players’ total outfield defense in 2017.)
It’s not an inspiring list, to be sure. All five players are on the wrong side of 30, and only Lorenzo Cain is coming off of a fully healthy and productive year. That said, any of the five would give the Mets an experienced, known quantity in center field, while pushing Nimmo and Lagares into bench roles to which they might be better suited.
Another option would be for the Mets to play Michael Conforto in center field and to pursue a more established hitter in free agency to play right. Conforto actually hasn’t been a butcher in center, compiling -3 DRS and 2.7 UZR in his 367.2 career innings at the position. Those numbers suggest that Conforto’s been about league average defensively, which the Mets would certainly take if the outfielder can maintain that production over a larger sample of innings. Should the Mets commit to Conforto in center and pursue a free agent right fielder, here are some names to consider:
J.D. Martinez is clearly the most attractive option, but is probably out of the Mets’ price range. Meanwhile, the other six players are on the wrong side of 30 and, other than Jay Bruce, would be a bit of a gamble given their recent struggles. Still, these players have much higher offensive upsides than most of the center fielders listed above, and could seriously bolster a Mets lineup with more than a few question marks in it.
Given the possibility of a Nimmo/Lagares platoon in center, the Mets may be better off spending their money on rotational and bullpen depth, and on adding an established second or third baseman. Nonetheless, the free agent—and potentially the trade—market offers the Mets a few interesting possibilities to consider heading into the offseason. A year after carrying four starting outfielders on their Opening Day roster, the Mets will need to be creative about filling the third spot that currently appears wide open.
What should the Mets’ starting outfield be in 2018?
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Cespedes (LF), Nimmo/Lagares (CF), Conforto (RF)
Cespedes (LF), free agent (CF), Conforto (RF)
Cespedes (LF), Conforto (CF), free agent (RF)