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The Mets’ center field options in free agency

Imperfect free agent center field options could lead to status quo for the Mets.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In baseball the proverbial “they” always say you have be strong up the middle in order to be a true contender. In their quest to return to prominence in 2018, the Mets will surely be looking to solidify their up-the-middle positions, including center field. While the Mets already have several internal options for center field in 2018, including Juan Lagares, Brandon Nimmo, and Michael Conforto, it should be exploring the free agent market at the position. While light on depth in terms of true defensively-capable center fielders, there are several intriguing free agents on the higher end of the spectrum who could possibly pique the Mets’ interest should they decide to devote significant dollars to the position.

The Top Shelf

The clear-cut top center fielder on the market this year is an old nemesis from the 2015 World Series: Lorenzo Cain. Entering his age-32 season, Cain carries a strong track record as an above-average regular, if not a borderline star, in the majors. Sporting an above-average bat—107 wRC+ for his career—and well regarded for his baserunning with upwards of 25 stolen bases in three of the last four years, Cain’s calling card is his exceptional defense. Despite his deserved reputation, his center field defense has been in a gradual decline since his peak defensive season, by UZR/150, in 2013, with the steepest tumble worryingly taking place from 13.6 UZR/150 in 2016 to “only” a 2.4 UZR/150 in 2017.

Now, Cain still obviously put up an above-average defensive season in 2017 and in total posted an excellent 4.1 fWAR, but given the declining defensive metrics—his Defensive Runs Saved numbers have decline, too—that don’t figure to turn around given his age and his more “good” than “great” bat, Cain’s prospectus as an above-average regular over the next several seasons looks something less than airtight. Some team will assuredly shell out a lot of money for Cain to play center field despite the qualifying offer that is attached to him, but it’s highly unlikely the penny-pinching Mets will sign a pact with a player whose best days are almost certainly behind him.

Potential Starters

After Cain, the free agent market for center fielders really thins out, but there are a couple more potential starting options, including another former Royal, Jarrod Dyson, former Mets farmhand Carlos Gomez, Jon Jay of the Cubs, Austin Jackson of the Indians, and Cameron Maybin, most recently of the World Series champion Houston Astros. All of these players have their warts and, by and large, are nothing more than average regulars even in their best-case scenarios. As long as Juan Lagares and Brandon Nimmo are on the roster at bargain prices, and assuming Michael Conforto will be available early in the season as he rehabs his shoulder injury, it’s hard to see any of these players being particularly cost-effective additions by Sandy Alderson.

Dyson is essentially an older version of Juan Lagares with less outstanding defensive prowess and more baserunning value. Maybin is another very good defender in center who is a base stealing threat, but let’s be honest, Maybin is a player who has been worth 12.2 fWAR in his career over nearly 3,500 PA since his debut in 2007; he could probably start for a team without playoff aspirations, but on a Mets team looking to get back to the playoffs, he’d probably be the fifth outfielder.

It’s a somewhat similar story for Jon Jay, although the lefty swinger offers more with the bat—he’s a steady 106 wRC+ hitter for his career—than the rest of the group, although defensively he’s been a negative in 900+ innings in center field the past two years by UZR/150 and DRS. You could easily plug him in as the offensive-minded lefty part of a platoon with Lagares, but if the bidding goes to multiple years and/or anything even approaching the $8 million Jay was paid last season with the Cubs, then he really just does not make sense for the Mets’ budget.

From the right side of the plate, Jackson could be an interesting pickup assuming his price tag doesn’t soar too much following an outstanding season in a reserve role with the Cleveland Indians. In just 318 plate appearances with Cleveland, Jackson racked up 1.8 fWAR on the strength his bat, which he swung to the tune of a 131 wRC+. It’s hard to gauge just what Jackson’s market will look like, but given that he has been dreadful in center field the last two seasons (-12.8 and -19.5 UZR/150s the past two seasons) and that his .385 BABIP-driven offensive season in 2017 was his first season over 100 wRC+ since 2013, you couldn’t fault Alderson if he took a hard pass on the Cleveland super-sub.

Last but not least in this group is potentially the most interesting player: Gomez. A former star in Milwaukee, he had struggled with health and performance in recent years before putting up 2.3 fWAR in just 105 games with the Texas Rangers this past season, including posting a 110 wRC+. While Gomez’s days of star level production are well behind him entering his age-32 season, his still-passable defense in center field (just barely negative by UZR/150 the past two years) combined with his good platform season with the bat should entice some team to give him a shot on a short term deal at an AAV around the $11.5 million he made with Texas in 2017. At that price point, don’t expect the Mets to commit more than a third of their reported offseason budget to an aging player who has struck out about 30% of the time the past two years and who can no longer contribute defensively at a premium position.

Scraping the Barrel

Remember when I said that the free agent crop of center fielders was light on depth? I really wasn’t kidding. The rest of the free agent options include Peter Bourjos, Rajai Davis, Tyler Collins, Alex Presley, Jaff Decker, Pedro Florimon, and Jared Hoying. At best these are all depth guys, and in most cases it’s hard to see major league deals materializing for these individuals.

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While certainly not a bumper crop of free agent center fielders, there are some potentially useful options on the market who could intrigue the Mets. However, given the expected price tags relative to the projected performance of the free agent center fielders available, and considering the Mets’ budget, other needs, and in-house options, it appears unlikely that the Mets would make a serious bid for any of the higher end options.